With a doctorate in entomology, David Shibles sure is living in the right state. The Polk County residential horticulture agent sees odd-looking beetles, grasshoppers and other creepy crawlies brought in to the extension office each week. He can identify most of them right off the bat, but once in awhile someone will bring in a stumper.
You might assume the 70-year-old grew up with an insect net in his hand, but that's not the case at all. While obtaining his undergraduate degree in education at the University of Maine, Shibles signed up for a course in entomology and took a shine to it.
His favorite insect? "That's a tough question," said Shibles. He likes the monarch butterfly with its striking orange and black pattern, and the assassin bug, a vicious-looking yet beneficial insect that kills pests like flies, mosquitoes, beetles and caterpillars.
But even this insect-loving Maine transplant doesn't like Florida roaches.
He landed his position with the Polk County Extension Office in 2000, and on top of his role as residential horticulture agent, Shibles also coordinates the Master Gardener Program, which recently took home the International Award for Service to Youth during the 2012 convention.
Over the past 12 years, Shibles grew the program from five volunteers to more than 110 people who put in 10,000 hours of volunteer time just last year. Shibles can't say enough good things about them.
"I've had a lot of people working for me over the years who were well-paid, but no comparison to these master gardeners who work for free because they love plants and love to help people with their landscape problems," he claimed.
Shibles' role also includes helping landscaping professionals with continuing education credits in pesticide and herbicide management to ensure these chemicals are being used responsibly, a good fit since he's no stranger to pesticides.
Right after earning his doctorate, he took a job with Sandoz Agricultural Chemicals. The company moved him and his wife to Homestead to evaluate all of its new products. Shibles spent 15 years there before being relocated to Mississippi to set up a research farm with the aim of maximizing product evaluation on high value crops such as cotton, soybeans and rice.
After spending two years in Mississippi, Shibles moved back to Florida and worked as an agricultural consultant before getting involved with the Polk County Extension Service. He was initially hired on to manage a 10-year grant-funded research project evaluating the potential use of clay settling ponds, the waste product from phosphate mining, as a medium for growing vegetables, field crops, citrus, turf and ornamentals.
"We raised everything under the sun," he said, though due to practical difficulties, the clay ponds never took off in the industry. After that, Shibles dabbled in private research in Mexico and Central America, and worked for the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, but his love of growing vegetables remained. Today, as a hobby, he raises food in vertical hydroponic boxes instead of clay ponds.
What does he grow? "You name it, except carrots," he said. (Carrots will break apart the boxes if they are not thinned just right). He also raises tomatoes and peppers in 5-gallon buckets and has a new project — a 50-gallon drum that houses sweet potatoes.
"You put 6 inches of soil in the bottom of the drum," he explained. "As the sweet potatoes grow, you add more soil so just the tip of the vine is sticking out." The plants will produce tubers all throughout the drum. After 140 days, Shibles dumps the drum and harvests approximately 20 pounds of sweet potatoes.
While he may be the "bug" man and an expert in pesticides, Shibles only uses chemicals when he absolutely needs to, and suffers from the same frustrations as every other Florida vegetable gardener, namely caterpillars, fungus and some furry pests, too.
"I have had a problem with squirrels eating green tomatoes," Shibles stated. One day he walked outside and there was a big green tomato on the hood of his daughter's car, chomped down to the core, as if the squirrel were sending him a message.
"The message was 'cover them'," Shibles joked.