Thirty-seven years is a long time to do just about anything.
For Phil Wilson, NCDA&CS Plant Industry Director, nearly four decades with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will come to a close later this year when he retires Oct. 1.
Wilson has worked his entire professional career in the Plant Industry division, beginning in 1984 in the Support Operations section based out of Raleigh. There he worked with other Plant Industry employees in the field supporting spray projects and maintaining equipment. Wilson would stay in Raleigh until 1987, when he moved to Wilmington to take a job as a Plant Pest Inspector. In that position – now known as a Plant Pest Specialist – Wilson worked with growers to make sure their plants were free of dangerous pests and of a good quality for sale.
It would be 16 years before Wilson made another move. This time he took a job in the same position, but in Goldsboro close to his family in their home county. From there he moved up the ranks more and more, first as Plant Pest Administrator for five years and then as Plant Industry director in 2017.
In that time, Wilson has seen his work change in some pretty dramatic ways.
“When I first started out, we didn’t have anything near the technology we have now. We didn’t have cell phones or anything like that, but we’ve come along to have that. We’ve got electronic maps for trapping insects, whereas before you had to just use paper notes and keep track of them that way,” he said. “That’s been a huge change that I’ve seen over my career. It’s made us a lot more efficient, and really it saves us money. Even though you the devices cost money, you save it in the long run. When I started out, we didn’t even have computers. Gradually that just built over time.”
That rapid expansion in technology has changed the culture around getting things done, Wilson said.
“I tell people often that we live in a time right now where we don’t have a lot of patience. We want stuff immediately,” he said. “That’s the time we’re in right now, but on the other hand we also have the tools to do it.”
After nearly 40 years, you would expect someone like Wilson to have a few good stories to share. One of his proudest moments came during his time on the coast in the early 1990’s.
“A ship came into Sunny Point, which is a military ocean terminal in Brunswick County, that was infested with Asian Gypsy Moth,” he said. “At that time I was the field specialist for the area, so I went down there in July of that year. There were moths just flying off the ship, and it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. We ended up controlling that and preventing it from becoming established here. We had to spray vast areas around Wilmington and Brunswick County two years in a row, and we trapped there for several years after that. I even met several people through that project who I later hired and went on to have NCDA careers. I’m very proud of that work.”
Wilson said that the decision to retire came as he felt he’d done everything he could do in the position. He said he felt it was time to step aside and let someone new take the reins of one of the department’s largest regulatory bodies.
There are always new challenges on the horizon, and Wilson said invasive species will continue to be a point of focus for his successor.
“Pest-wise, Spotted Lanternfly is something North Carolina is going to have to deal with. It’s in Virginia now, but it’s coming here – if we get through this year without finding it here we’ll be very fortunate. It’s coming to us in a hurry, so we’ll have to deal with that because it’s a pest on our vineyards and other plants,” he said. “With world trade the way it is, anything can happen at any time. Things come into ports from all over the world, and you can’t really stop that, so you have to be prepared to handle it.”
In retirement, Wilson said he plans to be more active in his church community. He is unlikely to stay out of working with plant protection for long.
“I’ve had some other groups say they’re interested in having on for some work, and I’ve let Dr. (Sandy) Stewart (NCDA&CS Assistant Commissioner of Agricultural Services) know that if there are ever any projects down the line that they need my help with I’d be happy to do that,” he said. “It depends on if they need me for anything.”
Wilson spoke highly of his colleagues in Plant Industry.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have, I don’t want to call them employees, but the friends I’ve made within the division have just been tremendous. As time goes on you eventually become the old rat in the barn so to speak, and that’s where I’m at now, but I’ve got the greatest staff around me,” he said. “They work hard, they don’t complain, and it’s just been an honor to have been in my position, to try and help them succeed and to help the department and the division do what we’re expected to do for North Carolina.”