Northern Michigan's Next Gen Farm Girl Nikki Rothwell

Rothwell walks to the front of the room, and, well, there’s a fashion disparity that’s hard to miss. She wears a sea-foam green button-up knit with a ruffle up the front, a black mid-length skirt; an improbably tight bun holds her hair tautly in place. Four earrings decorate her left ear; two earrings adorn her right. The look is more literature prof than insect nerd, but the moment she starts speaking there’s no mistaking that the right Michigan State University staffer is running the show.

For the next hour and a half Rothwell steps through a 60-slide PowerPoint presentation—line graphs of apple scab growth, a photo of lab-generated fungal mutants, tables of active ingredients. She calls a short break for coffee and cakes, and then she moves on to insects, another 60 slides of PowerPoint, more graphs, more tables, more photos, and another hour and a half. Highlights include a damaging new fruit fly that has appeared—the spotted wing drosophila, whose female has a serrated ovipositor that strikes fear into the hearts of farmers. Another dangerous pest is pushing its way here from the East Coast—the brown marmorated stinkbug (“It caused a bloodbath in apples out East,” she says). She reminds farmers of sprays that have stopped working because of fungal mutation, explains the nuances of new sprays that are safer for workers and consumers, but whose complexity requires more attention to labels.

She drives home the idea that the way farmers spray is central to staving off the evolution of resistance. “This is an all or nothing type of resistance,” she says. “It’s like a lock and a key.” The point: as soon as the fungus evolves around the one aspect of the spray that kills it, the fungus has the key it needs, and the spray is completely ineffective—more spray will not make a difference. Spray right and you slow the evolution dramatically; spray wrong and you speed it up.

It’s an impressive display of knowledge, and even more so when farmers ask questions and Rothwell departs from the script to speak extemporaneously and in depth about a related topic. Her delivery is an engaging mix of rock-solid scientific understanding, grown-up Kingsley farm girl, street-level humor and just plain straight shooter, and the audience is behind her all the way.

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