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Former MSU entomology professor receives honor

September 30, 2012

Retired MSU entomology professor Henry Pitre, second from left, receives a plaque of international recognition from Rogelio Trabanino, right, at the International Conference of the Agricultural Graduates from Zamorano University in Zamorano, Honduras. Pitre was recognized for helping graduate students across Central America and East Africa to manage insect pests. (Submitted photo)

Pesticides aren’t the only way to protect crops from pests.

Before retiring as an entomology professor at MSU, Henry Pitre spent several years working with graduate students in Central America and East Africa, where he said farmers cannot simply board an airplane and spray pesticides on their fields from above.

“There was no such thing as insecticide disposal over an entire field,” Pitre said. “When I traveled to these countries, I would take my high-technology hat off here and put my low-technology hat on there. I really enjoyed working with low-technology agriculture, because it’s very demanding. It’s very difficult to develop control procedures that will not cost the producers any money or very little money.”

So, Pitre taught his graduate students — who, in turn, taught the farmers — to plant crop varieties resistant to specific pests, to rear and release insect species that would prey on the pests, and other inexpensive pest management tactics.

In gratitude, several of Pitre’s graduate students brought Pitre and his wife to the 29th International Conference of the Agricultural Graduates from Zamorano University in Zamorano, Honduras in August, where the graduates presented him with a plaque of international recognition for his work.

Pitre, now a William L. Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus, said all nine of the graduate students from Zamorano University he has worked with over the years pooled their resources to pay all expenses for him and his wife. Only four of these former students were able to meet with him in person, he said, but he greatly enjoyed the reunion and was grateful for the honor at the conference.

“When you’re teaching these students ... you don’t have an appreciation for the gratitude they have for what you’re doing for them,” Pitre said.

“Seeing that (gratitude) at this luncheon (where) they gave me a plaque in front of 500 people from 22-plus countries, that really hits your heart. For them to come back and take my wife and I and pay for it, that tells you they really enjoyed my friendship, my mentoring and my graduate research program.”

Pitre said his graduate students received financial support to study agriculture at MSU through a research grant he obtained from the United States Agency for International Development from 1980 through 2007.

Pitre enjoyed working with the graduate students to begin with, he said, because of their enthusiasm and gratitude for learning opportunities they often could not afford on their own. The program began in Honduras, he said, and his first visit to the country with a graduate student solidified his desire to maintain the USAID program.

“The way (the people I saw there) survive is by eating corn and sorghum grown up on the hills in small acreages,” Pitre said. “The insects would (eat) the crops down to the ground. Every year, that’s what they experienced, insects that would eat the crops down to the soil level.”

Pitre said his students identified the pest problems, studied the pests’ biology and ecology, identified the pests’ natural enemies and evaluated control measures to eliminate or reduce the pests’ impact. Pitre also taught the graduate students tactics called integrated pest management (IPM), which includes planting strategies, planting dates, intercropping, strip cropping, multi-crop plantings and the aforementioned insect rearing and use of resistant crop varieties.

“As a result of that ... (farmers) would not lose the whole crop, but they would maybe lose one tenth or one twelfth of their crop. and they would have the rest of it for their use and survival, at no cost to them,” Pitre said.

One of Pitre’s former students, AIR Worldwide business development manager Oscar Vergara, said he originally comes from Ecuador but he met Pitre while he was conducting applied research in Honduras. He said Pitre sent students like him to conduct field research and work with farmers in Honduras and Central America, helping them to better understand the risks pests posed and how to manage those risks. One success story, he said, was Eliseo Osorio, who Vergara conducted research with while studying under Dr. Pitre between 1994 and 1997.

“Eliseo (farmed) a very difficult tract of land in Honduras in an area with poor soils, limited precipitation and multiple pest problems,” Vergara said. “I recently visited him last month to find out how he is doing. He told me that thanks to Dr. Pitre his economic situation has improved notably, because he is now a better producer and continues to apply the new pest control technologies that were recommended by Dr. Pitre for his area.

“(Osorio) is very grateful (to) Dr. Pitre for all the help he received from him during the years,” Vergara added. “I met with other farmers that participated with Dr. Pitre’s program, and they are equally grateful (to) him and remember him fondly after all these years.”

From Honduras, Pitre said his grant program extended to El Salvador, Mexico, East Africa and Nicaragua. Johnson Zeledon, now corn product manager with Syngenta, worked with Pitre as a graduate student to control pests on grain sorghum in Nicaragua.

“I had the honor of working under Dr. Pitre for seven years while pursuing first my (master’s degree) and then reaching the conclusion that a Ph.D. under him was a great opportunity,” Zeledon said. “He was always willing to listen, and he and I had many long conversations about science and technology that were by no means one-sided. He enabled me to learn how to challenge the status quo using the right approach. In my case, he trusted in my abilities to develop and execute a research program thousands of miles away with little to no supervision from him or Mississippi State, while always being a phone call or email away in a time where there was no quicker way of communicating.”

Pitre said his program was just one example of MSU’s strategic efforts to promote globalized research and outreach, enhancing institutional culture and raising international visibility. Zeledon said the honor Pitre received from his students was well-deserved.

“I wanted to be part of this gift,” Zeledon said, “because ... he earned it.”

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