In Memoriam: James Lyons, Professor Emeritus, Vegetable Crops, UC Davis

Jim Lyons, professor emeritus, UC Davis
Jim Lyons, professor emeritus, UC Davis
James Lyons, professor emeritus, UC Davis and UC ANR
James Lyons, professor emeritus, UC Davis and UC ANR.

James M. Lyons, UC Davis professor emeritus of Vegetable Crops and founding director of the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, passed away Nov. 9, 2019. He was 90.

Born and raised in Livermore, California, Jim Lyons earned a B.S. in Agricultural Economics at UC Berkeley. After graduation, he worked in the Safeway produce department and became interested in postharvest physiology of vegetables and fruit. He then joined UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) as a field assistant in Stanislaus County, but was drafted to serve in the Korean War.

Benefitting from the GI Bill and inspired by his UCCE experiences, Jim started graduate school in the Department of Vegetable Crops at UC Davis with the goal of becoming a Farm Advisor. (note: In 2004, four UC Davis departments — Agronomy and Range Science, Environmental Horticulture, Pomology, and Vegetable Crops — merged to form the new Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis).

At UC Davis, he was part of a team that did the earliest research on the role of ethylene in fruit ripening. For his Ph.D., he carried out pioneering work describing the physiology of chilling injury in warm season crops, an important concern for food handlers and grocers.

In 1962, after graduate school, he joined the vegetable crops faculty at UC Riverside, where he continued his work on chilling injury and plant physiology, was also responsible for conducting weed management research, and, befitting the natural administrator that he was, became department chair as an assistant professor.

In 1970, he was recruited back to UC Davis, this time as chair of the Vegetable Crops department. The late 1960s and 1970s was a period when public funding for the University of California was being drastically reduced. Budgets for commodity research were being cut off. Lyons took leadership in convincing the agricultural industry that they needed to step up and start funding research in a major way. He worked with the tomato industry to set up the first marketing order research program and went on to help develop similar programs for many commodities, ensuring that important applied research could continue at UC to solve crop production problems.

Lyons’ knack for fostering collaboration was rapidly recognized at UC Davis and he was soon appointed associate dean for Plant Sciences and Pest Management in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. As associate dean, he strove to get people out of their departmental silos and working together in a more interdisciplinary manner.

In 1979, Lyons became founding director of the newly established UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. At first, he was filling in for Ivan Thomason, who was on sabbatical, but ended up serving as director or interim director of the IPM Program off and on for more than nine years. It was under his leadership that the key components of the program were established: the regionally based UCCE IPM advisors, the education and publications group, the UC IPM computer system, and the Technical Advisory Committee that oversaw a robust competitive grant program.

Under his guidance, the UC IPM Program brought together scientists from many disciplines, UC campuses, and UCCE offices to engage cooperatively in research and extension programs across California in a way that hadn't previously occurred. It was a model that was praised nationally, and other organizations and states sought to emulate. Because the program was comprehensive, involving both research and extension, and clearly directed at solving problems, it was successful in helping California growers of many crops better manage pests and reduce the use of the most toxic pesticides. 

Despite his accomplishments, Jim Lyons kept a low profile and let others enjoy the credit for the programs he led. He defended the programs vigorously, but allowed people the flexibility to excel. His genius was his ability to bring a group of diverse people together to meet a common goal. Lyons stepped down as UC IPM Program director in 1987, but came back to serve as interim director from 1992 to 1993 and again from 2002 to 2003.

Jim Lyons took on many other administrative roles at UC Davis and in UC ANR including director of the UC ANR Center for Pest Management Research, assistant director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. He retired in 1991.

He is survived by his wife Nancy Lyons, daughter Laura, son Andy and several grandchildren.

(Article by Mary Lou Flint, former UC IPM associate director for urban and community IPM, and UCCE specialist emeritus. Original post. Additions by Ann Filmer, Plant Sciences, UC Davis.)

Further reading about Lyons' career: