Finding sustainable and safe ways to deal with pests is one of the organic farmer’s biggest challenges.
Every year flea beetles, a small insect that feeds on the brassica (cabbage/mustard) family, wreak havoc on our crops. They feed most during hot spring and summer days, and the hot dry weather we’ve had has provided an ideal environment for them to thrive. Our mustard greens, cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, kale, arugula have all been decimated by these tiny pests, seriously impacting our ability to bring these crops to market.
How we approach this problem and its implications, highlight some of the key concepts of organic farming and key differences from conventional farming.
First of all, holes in your greens means it’s good eats! If the bugs can eat it and thrive, then so can you! If nothing would dare nibble on your greens and survive, maybe you should question whether you should be nibbling on them as well. Our food is also food to many other animals, and organic growing systems try to work within interconnected food webs to provide ecologically sound systems of food production. Food that is produced without drastically altering the natural populations of animals around us means good food for all.
However, some of our crops this year have been entirely eaten by these animals, and they’ve truly earned the moniker of “pest.” In the conventional farming world, we would just turn to industrially produced chemicals that might solve the problem for today, but might be pushing a bigger problem on to the next generation. As resistance to these chemicals grows each time they’re used, we have to resort to more and more drastic measures to respond to the problem. Just consider why we need GMOs. What are amphibian and fungal genes doing in a plant’s DNA? They’re being put there to try and respond to these pest problems that former generations have punted on to us.
Even “organic” solutions to these problems can be fraught with danger. The USDA label of “Certified Organic” still allows organic farmers to put poisons on our food, they just have to make sure the poison was derived (read: industrially processed) from natural, organic sources. But a natural organic poison on your food is still a poison on your food!
So how do we respond? Most importantly, proactively. We plan to plant multiple plantings so that if something goes wrong with one, we can make up for it in successive plantings. The increased yield our intensive small scale system produces, compared to industrial mechanized growing systems, usually more than makes up for the losses a single pest might cause. We also try to develop healthy soils that will produce healthier more resistant/resilient plants. We practice crop rotations, so pest populations and diseases don’t build up in the soils. We use physical barriers, like row cover and insect netting, to keep the insects off our plants. Sometimes cultural practices, like cultivating at the right time or harvesting at just the right stage of development, can help.
If all of this still fails to resolve the issue, we then turn to natural, non-toxic forms of pest control. Biodegradable soap can be used on soft bodied insects. Some of these soaps are even rated as safe for use as toothpaste (I know, I’ve done it often before on backpacking trips). However, to a small insect it quickly dissolves their waxy protective covering. Hard bodied insects like flea beetles need a different response. Diatomaceous earth is made of diatoms, microscopic algae with high levels of silicon in them, the same element used in making glass. When the diatoms are ground up it leaves microscopic jagged edges, which is harmless (and some even say beneficial) to humans if consumed in small amounts, it rips apart smaller organisms like the flea beetle. Lastly, we can also use bio-controls. Certain strains of bacteria or other insects can be used to prey on the “pest” populations that have gotten too high and out of balance with the system around it.
Lastly, failure is always part of farming, just as it is always a part of life as well. Hopefully each time a crop fails, we learn more about how to better prepare and respond next time.
It’s my hope that all of this gives folks eating food produced at 5 Loaves Farm some peace of mind. That holey greens are good eating greens, that the food produced here isn’t treated with toxic sprays and chemicals, and that our small scale non-industrial growing system is growing healthy connections between all of us and the world around us.