Keeping the Pests Away (or trying to)

Organic farming is a lot about battling pests and disease, without the arsenal of chemicals that conventional farming uses. One of the cornerstones of organic farming is the health and earth implications of refraining from using synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides, which have blanket effects on soil health, biodiversity, air quality, toxicity of fruits and vegetables, and other implications to insects, humans, and the earth. But bugs and weeds are still a problem, and organic farming continues to develop different weapons and tools to combat them.

One common misconception is that organic farms don’t spray anything at all, and this is not true. But sprays used on certified organic farms are approved by a governing body. For more information on organic certification and what it encompasses (I am not very knowledgeable on this – yet!), see the Certified Organic Association of BC. An interesting debate is on the rise, as well, about certified organic vs “beyond organic” and handshake-organic (trusting that someone is using organic practices, without certification). But that is for another time.

Visitor

Examining collard leaves for insects

Examining collard leaves for insects

Marjo, of ES Crop Consult, led us through the basics of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is a broad way of defining pest management in a way that’s not necessarily organic, but is also not spray-first-ask questions later.

IPM Steps

  1. Know as much as you can about what pests are out there, and about your crops. Knowing what kind of pests are likely to appear in each crop will help to identify problems, and knowing what healthy/unhealthy plants look like is also very important.
  2. Know if insects or disease affect marketability of a crop. For example, leaf damage by aphids to a potato plant doesn’t make the potatoes un-sellable, since it doesn’t change the look of the potato, but may affect yield (amount of potatoes harvested)
  3. Monitor for pests to determine the threshold for action. In some cases, the threshold might just be as soon as you’ve seen one of a species; in other cases, it might be more. It’s also important to know what stage the insects are at in their life cycle, to know when your actions will have the most effect.
  4. Evaluate your actions – did it work? Why or why not? Was it about timing? If you don’t evaluate, then you won’t be able to improve the outcome next time.

Monitoring and Action

There are a variety of tools that can be used to determine what pests are in the field, including sweep nets for flying critters, pheromone traps, sticky cards, or other specialized traps. And of course, the UBC Practicum favourite, go out there and look at the plants! Turn over the leaves, see what you find, and take note.

Different actions are available, based on the scale and the interests of the farmer. On a small scale, squishing is a

Me in my bad-ass spray outfit, to spray soap to combat aphids

Me in my bad-ass spray outfit and backpack sprayer, to spray soap to combat aphids

pretty good option. On a larger, organic farm scale, there are a few sprays that we use on the farm. For aphids on the brassicas (kale, collards), we spray a concentrated soap mixed with water. We have also used DiPel, an organically approved insecticidal spray, for other pests. Other sprays are probably being used, but I’m not familiar with them. But UBC Farm takes an integrated approach, and are often looking for other ways to combat pests.

Alternatives to Sprays

Besides sprays, there are other ways to discourage pests and maintain balance on the farm. One of the keys is attracting beneficial predators, like ladybugs, lacewing moths, and birds. Biodiversity on the farm is important, and having attracting flowers in hedgerows. Ensuring habitat for other creatures on your farm is key, as well as windbreaks, animal corridors, and of course enough bee food – constantly flowering plants to keep your bees healthy.

The Integrated Pest Management in an organic setting may be a lot about hand-squishing, but there are a lot of various ways that organic farmers work to maintain a balance in the hopes that no pest will completely take over and destroy. We have certainly seen a lot of various bugs on the farm!

Unidentified caterpillar in a pepper

Unidentified caterpillar in a pepper

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