HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Virginia Bolshakova is among the researchers who have studied the impact the Aroga moth has on sagebrush — and studied ways to stop outbreaks of the pest, which has killed huge swaths of the beneficial plant across the West.
In the 1960s, environmentalists thought sagebrush was ruining the environment throughout the Great Basin across Nevada, Oregon, Washington and California. But that supposition was wrong, Bolshakova said. Sagebrush actually brings up moisture from the water table and releases it to surrounding plants. When sagebrush was killed by an outbreak of Aroga moths, researchers found that it not only stopped benefiting surrounding plants, it left a heavy load of fuel for wildfires and helped the spread of cheatgrass.
“In the last seven years science has figured out certain conditions allow an outbreak point” of the moth, she said.
Then came a turning point in the research.
“It was a breakthrough when we discovered a tiny wasp that lays its eggs inside the moth and kills 80 percent of them in months,” she said.
Now a University of California Extension agent on California’s coast, Bolshakova takes on a variety of agriculture-related issues.
No day is average. One morning she is working with concerned citizens about beekeeping policies, collaborating with scientists at University of California-Berkeley about eradicating aphids in gardens and the afternoon is spent herding students around the county’s ranch teaching about rangeland.
Bill Gass, executive director of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, recognizes Bolshakova’s contributions to agriculture in the county.
“Although Virginia has only been on the job in San Mateo County for a short time, she is already making a positive impact,” he said. “She brings enthusiasm, high energy, intelligence and a passion for agriculture to her job.”
Bolshakova sees her position as an “all-purpose” player.
“I think the biggest challenge facing San Mateo County agriculture is urban-rural interface, and that goes in both directions,” she said. “I work with many youth who never thought about plants or planting a seed and watching it grow. I worry that people are becoming disconnected to their food and where it originates.”
Her interest in agriculture stretches back to her childhood.
She grew up on a farm in Michigan, near Grand Rapids, she said.
“My dad worked in the coal industry but always wanted to be a farmer,” she said. “My parents met on a dairy farm and found 400 acres in Michigan and began farming.”
The family worked with hogs and soybeans at the start and then added more commodities — wheat and several varieties of heritage corn. When the farm converted to organic production several years ago the family began to see profit margins increase, she said.
Bolshakova earned a basketball scholarship to Utah State University and studied biology off the court.
“Along the way one of my professors became my mentor and then I realized I wanted to know more about science research,” she said. “I began to look how to use natural enemies in the environment to control pests.”
Now she is combining her research acumen and her experiences in a professional capacity.
“I have had so many opportunities in my career and now I have the privilege of working in this awesome place, engaging the people and moving forward with ag conservation,” she said.
Residence: El Granada, Calif.
Education : Ph.D., Utah State University
Family: Husband, Hamid Mohamadlou
Occupation: University of California Cooperative Extension, San Mateo and San Francisco counties