One of the things Michelle Moyer enjoyed most working in her family’s ornamental nursery was helping customers.
“Clients were having problems with their plants,” she said. “They want to know what to do.”
That early job experience would foreshadow her professional career: This month marks a decade since Moyer started as an associate professor and extension viticulturist for Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, or IAREC, in Prosser.
She’s doing far more than fix houseplants: Moyer has spent the last decade helping growers produce a robust and healthy wine grape crop, a crucial job given the growth in the state’s wine industry.
When she started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she majored in genetics and planned to attend medical school. As Moyer progressed in her genetics studies, she realized she didn’t want to go to medical school.
While in college, she often had friends who would ask for help reviving their houseplants, a job she was long accustomed to doing at her family’s nursery. She soon realized that she could tap into that experience for her academic studies. She decided to double major in genetics and plant pathology, which only required one additional class.
“I get to be a doctor, and I get to help people but not deal with people,” Moyer joked. “Plants don’t talk back or lie about their symptoms.”
She then pursued a doctorate in plant pathology at Cornell University, where she pursued research modeling different diseases in wine grapes. She worked at a winery for extra money, and took several classes to learn more about growing wine grapes.
Through her research, she worked with several professors at the IAREC in Prosser.
“(IAREC) is world-famous for the type of work it does for specialty crops and irrigated settings,” she said.
When the position at IAREC came open, Moyer wasn’t the only one interested. Her classmates applied, too.
She was hired for the position in late 2010 and started in February 2011, just several months after receiving her doctorate from Cornell.
“It truly was a great unique opportunity,” Moyer said. “The timing really aligned.”
While Moyer started out being a “plant doctor,” her work at WSU is far more than solving growing issues. She works on developing best practices throughout the process — from vineyard site selection to pest management — to help producers grow the highest-quality wine grapes.
Still, Moyer finds plenty of opportunities to use her disease modeling approach.
“I do think about that plant (disease modeling) aspect in everything I do,” she said. “I ask the question, ‘If I do X, will it change Y?’ or ‘If I do a certain action, what are all the things that could influence the outcome?’”
She still gets to play plant doctor in her work at WSU. For example, when phylloxera, an insect, had the potential to damage Washington vineyards, WSU researchers started pursuing a well-established solution: having wine grapes grow on rootstock rather than on the vineyard’s natural roots.
Moyer has been working with growers to determine whether there would be a benefit to growing on rootstock and aiding them through the transition.
Rootstock offers other benefits, such as improving soil conditions and reducing drought stress, so Moyer has provided that information to growers as well.
“It’s nice to say, here’s your problem, here’s the solution,” she said.
Moyer said she’s eager for the next decade of work. She has seen several trends emerge, such as growing interest in using older growing techniques in a less labor-intensive way to minimize chemical-intensive solutions.
She’s also eager to evolve as the role of university extension centers has changed. The Washington wine industry has grown so quickly that new growing techniques and technology often are driven by the private sector rather than a university.
That means often finding out about new technology and products at the same time as growers. Moyer believes her role will involve more research to see if a specific technology or product measures up.
“We’re no longer building the (wine grape) industry,” she said. “We’re supporting the industry that’s big enough on its own.”
Name: Michelle Moyer.
Profession: Associate professor and extension viticulturist for Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.
On translating her research for wine grape growers: “I try to not do as much jargon. I try to use language everybody understands.”