Dan Potter was 11 years old and sitting patiently on a train bound from Stanton Island back to his Connecticut home. A nondescript cardboard container, about the size of a shoebox, rested on his lap. Every so often Potter would gingerly lift the container’s lid and sneak a peek inside at the contents to reassure himself that what was inside was well worth all the snow shoveling and leaf raking he’d done.
“To me, it was a treasure chest,” Potter says. “I found somewhere in a magazine a guy in New York City who sold exotic insects from Africa and South America. I went by myself to visit him and purchased – for about $8 to $10 – this box full of giant elephant beetles and things that were green and blue and shiny with big horns on their heads.
“That is my earliest memory of getting really riled up about insects,” he says.
While it had been a remarkable adventure for a little boy, the odyssey of discovery had only begun for Potter, who never outgrew his passion and enthusiasm for the insect world.
In his 30 years as a researcher, educator and mentor, Potter has not only established one of the leading centers for turf and landscape entomology at the University of Kentucky, but through his vision and leadership he’s become the preeminent mentor training the next generation of green industry researchers on how to better understand the insect pests that plague turf and landscape environments.
“Dan has an infectious enthusiasm for the study of insects,” says Ken Haynes, a faculty colleague at The University of Kentucky. “Somehow he is able to transfer his love of insects to young people, college students, graduate students and his colleagues.”
BIG SMALL WORLD. Potter is amazed at the amount of sex and violence involved in his area of research.
Following his undergraduate work at Cornell, Potter entered the entomology graduate program at The Ohio State University, one of the top entomology programs in the country. As a young, nerdy bug guy, Potter found himself studying spider mites. His focus wasn’t how to kill these pint-sized plant pests, but rather to better understand their behavior – their sexual behavior. Potter was mesmerized.
“Most people would think something that is smaller than a pinhead wouldn’t have much in the way of sexual behavior,” he says. “But it’s pretty complicated. The females produce a scent that attracts the males and the males actually fight over the females. They really can beat themselves up and even kill each other over the females. You could say there was a lot of sex and violence in my graduate work.”
What Potter took away from that micro-voyeuristic experience laid the groundwork for a greater understanding for him on how to better manage pest insects, instead of the chemical eradication method popular at the time. It’s a theme that would have a profound influence on the young researcher and shape his career in the green industry in the years to come.
“I’ve tried to look at pest management in the turf and landscape environment as more than just reaching for the sprayer,” he says. “I’m not at all adverse to the sprayer, and we’ve done an enormous amount of research to develop new insecticides with less environmental impact, but it’s not really where we start.
“We start with an understanding of the insects, where they’re coming from and why they are there?” he adds. “And then what can we modify and do to change the system so that it’s more stable?”
LEARNING CURVE. Following his graduate work, Potter’s career path led him directly to academia. Potter intended to model his career after the mentors who were such an influence on him during his studies. “I knew since my sophomore year in college what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be my advisors, who were my role models.”
This is the fourth installment a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, honored these professionals at a reception Oct. 24 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
Click here to read the welcome letter from Neil Cleveland, Bayer's director of U.S. green business.
Young and ambitious, the 26-year-old fielded an offer from the University of Kentucky to fill a newly created position for turf and landscape entomology. At the time, turfgrass entomology was an undeveloped discipline with only a small handful of researchers in the U.S.
“The urban landscape didn’t get important in the U.S. until the 1960s, and the field was wide open in the late 1970s,” he says. “I had this diverse industry of turf, trees and shrubs, each with their own unique problems. There’d never been a turfgrass entomologist in the transition zone, so the pests weren’t known or what their thresholds were. Most of the research was going on in the Northeast, and than, there really wasn’t that much either.”
What was most attractive, though, was the position granted him the ability to build his own entomology program from scratch, an unprecedented opportunity for a researcher his age, Potter says. The only problem: Potter didn’t know squat about the turf or landscape industry, and he’d never given much thought to the insects that inhabit lawns and golf courses.
“It was really kind of scary,” he says. “I had no technical help whatsoever. It was just show up, here’s your office and here’s your lab. I was told to build a top-notch research and teaching program in six years.”
Potter had a steep learning curve to climb. As the department head he was expected to develop courses and teach turf and horticulture students about entomology without any prior knowledge of the green industry. “I didn’t know a juniper from an arborvitae and there was no reason I would because that wasn’t my background,” he says. “I could spot identify every single moth in the woods, but if someone asked me the difference between a pushup and sand-based putting green I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.”
Potter’s most prudent course of action was not to hide his deficiencies, but rather embrace them. “I never presented myself as an expert,” he says. “Instead, I sought out people’s advice.”
A.J. Powell was one of the first people he reached out to when he started at UK. Powel with the local extension turf specialist, who Potter describes as a “good old Kentucky boy” who knew everything there was to know about turfgrass.
Powell was impressed with Potter’s potential from the get go.
“When Dan arrived at UK we were in the midst of a ‘supposed’ sod webworm epidemic,” Powell says. “Because Dan was not trained specifically in landscape insect problems, he readily admitted his lack of knowledge and immediately did what he was trained to do. He actually went to the library and in two days found enough information to help us not only understand sod webworms, but help us realize that we had serious physiological problems that mimicked sod webworm damage.
“In his first two days of work, Dan saved our citizens thousands of dollars, eliminated the use of non-essential insecticides and made our entire industry much more professional and appreciative of UK,” he adds.
Powell took Potter out into the field and gave him a crash course on the entomological problems the turf industry was facing. Most importantly, though, Powell began introducing Potter to other area extension agents and golf course superintendents who shared with him the challenges they faced.
“The first two or three years of doing this I tried to talk to as many experienced people as I could and really listen to them. I must have asked a million questions,” Potter says. “And even though I didn’t have much to say, I made myself available to them as a researcher.”
In time, the people Potter once reached out to began coming to him for guidance. “I got pretty active in talking in the state and presenting research updates,” he says. That segued to teaching workshops and short courses. Then I was getting invited from out-of-state agencies to give presentations because someone had heard of me and the program.”
SIX YEARS LATER. When Potter began assembling the early vestiges of his program, there were maybe two people in the U.S. who had more than a 50 percent research appointment in turf.
Six years later, Potter had five graduate students and his department was publishing a lot of research on practical turf and landscape insect pest problems. “My objective at the time was to solve problems with insects and not to solve them by finding whatever spray would kill them the fastest,” he says. “We were trying to fill the knowledge gaps about the biology of these insects and then to apply that biology to a more rational approach to spraying.
“I recognize insecticides play a critical role in pest management,” he adds. “But I think our approach was pretty unique because of the balance between understanding the pest biology and listening to what the industry was saying so that the research wasn’t just an academic exercise.”
But while he was establishing his program on the national stage, Potter also worked equally as hard to train and prepare his students, researchers who would be entering and influencing the market.
Myth busting was one of the things his students and research department prided itself on and is an example of taking something that is part of the industry folklore and testing whether it is true. For example, in the 1980s one of his students evaluated the effectiveness of Japanese beetle traps, the hanging variety that were very popular as backyard deterrents.
“We did a milestone study on 24 home properties where we put out standardized test gardens and took the manufacturer’s instructions from the trap and we put it to the test,” he says. “We were able to show that in virtually every scenario the traps attracted every beetle in the area and you ended up doing more harm than going. The beetles were being attracted, but not to the traps. Instead, they were settling on the nearby landscape. That has become part of the popular literature on managing Japanese beetles that has stood the test of time.”
IN THE FIELD. Potter bristles at the question of his legacy on the turf and landscape industry. Early on, as Potter worked to establish his entomology program at UK, he had an epiphany about the work he was doing.
“You only have one career and you wonder what will be your legacy and what you can do that will have the greatest impact,” he says. “It took a while to figure that out.”
Potter says it comes down to few key things.
With his students, which he believes is one of his most important charges as an academic and mentor, it’s important that they appreciate the goals and objectives of the research they’re undertaking. It’s a benchmark he continues to hold himself to even after three decades in the industry.
“I set the example, and I’ve always felt this was important in the program’s success,” he says. “If one of my graduate students is going to put out a study that involves a couple of hundred trees, than I’m going to be out there working with the technicians and the undergraduates. I do as much physical work as anyone else in the lab. I go to the field. I get dirty and I’m involved with the work at all levels.”
Potter takes satisfaction in knowing the work his program does has a positive and lasting impact on the green industry. And as far as his legacy is concerned, every paper his program publishes or each student that goes on to contribute in a positive way represents a brick that continues to strengthen the green industry’s foundation of knowledge.
“Our body of work for the past 30 years has formed a significant portion of what’s known about turf and landscape insects in the U.S. And I don’t think that’s bragging,” he says. “It’s very satisfying to know that if we do a study it helps the green industry. We provide a foundation that lasts. It’s very satisfying to do the work that becomes the framework for the green industry when landscape managers go out and have to deal with these problems.
“It’s nice when someone sends you an e-mail that they’ve read your work and it’s helped them out,” he says. “That’s it in a nutshell.”