By Martha Jackson Suquet
Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by food labels at the farmers market or local farm store? The wealth of information we have about our food is clearly important, but it can be hard to know what to make of every single label.
While terms like “organic” and “non-GMO” have become familiar, Berkshire Grown wanted to explore a category that’s important to many of our member farmers but may not be as familiar to customers: Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM describes a range of strategies that farms use to deter pests and grow successful crops. Growers using IPM rely on chemical, biological, and cultural pest control strategies. They use careful monitoring of pests and diseases to identify the appropriate strategy for each threat, and generally save chemical pesticides for situations where other methods aren’t effective. Timing of pesticide application for peak effectiveness reduces excessive pesticide use.
“IPM is more than just the use of chemicals on crops, it is a process focused on the importance of environmental and human health while preventing, reducing and treating pests,” says Jessica Vila, Farm Manager at Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, NY. “We bear in mind biological, cultural, physical and mechanical approaches prior to chemical control. Chemical control is used when deemed most effective for long term control.” For example, managing weeds in an orchard can reduce threats from certain insects. At Hilltop Orchards in Richmond, “common sense practices such as weeding and trimming help keep the pest populations down without the use of harmful chemicals.”
Because IPM is a complex set of practices, farmers often benefit from technical assistance and support from outside organizations. Extension programs like UMass’s Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE) help farmers with their IPM practices. In addition to conducting ongoing research on specific local pests, diseases, and climate challenges, they also put out regular alerts to let IPM practitioners know when to act against certain threats. Farmers can request one-on-one assistance from UMass Extension programs to help them create their IPM plans.
Why do producers choose IPM instead of farming organically? For many crops in our Northeast climate, especially fruit crops, organic growing is intensely challenging. A berry farm or apple orchard faces insect and disease pressure that could wipe out entire fields, and organic measures aren’t always able to provide enough protection. Farmers use IPM to effectively manage threats to their crops while working to protect their soils and farm ecosystems. Pesticides can harm the diverse ecosystem that exists in farm soils, and excess pesticide use can lead to runoff that contaminates nearby waterways. By monitoring threats, prioritizing other control practices over pesticide use, and carefully timing pesticide application, IPM farmers can balance the benefits and harms of pesticide use.
At Samascott Orchards, Jessica Vila reports that the farm uses IPM to address its greatest threats: Spotted Wing Drosophila on berry crops and fire blight on apples. “We implement IPM to ensure we are taking the right steps to properly manage pests,” she says. “We hope consumers understand that we have them and the environment in mind when considering our options, especially when we use pesticides.”
Spotted Wing Drosophila, a type of fruit fly, is a berry grower’s nightmare. The tiny insects have rapidly spread in the Northeast over the past 10 years and can cause serious crop damage. Many growers spray pesticides to control this serious threat, but one farm in our region has developed and refined an innovative control method that allows them to avoid spraying while fully protecting their berry crops.
At The Berry Patch in Stephentown, NY, farmers Dale-Ila Riggs and Don Miles were in the same boat as many berry growers when Spotted Wing Drosophila first hit their blueberry field in 2012. They lost 40 percent of their crop that year and resorted to spraying the following season. They weren’t set up to spray efficiently, however, and Dale-Ila says that she realized quickly that it wasn’t a feasible long-term solution for them.
After learning of preliminary research conduction by Cornell, Dale-Ila converted a bird netting system into a fruit fly exclusion setup in 2014. Using old high tunnel hoops, she attached fine mesh insect protection netting to completely cover her berry field. She collaborated with Cornell entomologists, sending weekly fruit samples to be tested for infestation. At the end of that first season, the farm had only seen a .67 percent infestation rate. “It’s the first time an invasive agricultural insect pest has been beaten in a very short time frame without spraying,” says Dale-Ila.
Since that first promising season, Dale-Ila has refined her system, making it more effective, longer-lasting, and easier to set up and take down each year. Other growers were interested in replicating her system, but they didn’t always have easy access to the high tunnel hoops she was using to support the netting. With the help of a Sustainable Agriculture Research (SARE) grant, she tested variations on a post-and-cable support system, eventually settling on wood posts and heavy-duty cables.
In addition to collaborating with Cornell, The Berry Patch has worked with the manufacturer of their insect netting to improve the product. Dale-Ila convinced the producer to make the fabric more rip-resistant and to add zippers along the edges for easy connections between netting panels. She’s able to store the netting right in the field over the winter: she unzips the panels, scrunches them up against the cables and secures them there, then covers them with UV-resistant pallet wrap plastic. In the spring, it’s relatively easy to uncover them, reconnect the panel edges, and have a fully protected blueberry field with less than a day’s work.
While an invasive insect pest continues to be the main motivation behind The Berry Patch’s protective system, Dale-Ila has been pleased with other positive effects of her innovation. The fine-mesh netting protects her berries against heavy rain and winds, and she has seen increased yields since setting up the covers.
Unlike organically grown food, IPM products aren’t always labeled as such. While organic standards are well-defined, IPM is a spectrum of practices and doesn’t have an official certification program. You’re most likely to see IPM used on labels and signs at farmers markets, farm stores, and local food co-ops rather than at larger grocery stores. That’s because local farmers using IPM want their customers to know that while they aren’t certified organic, they are using practices to minimize ecological harm.
In the Berkshire area, odds are that your favorite U-Pick berry farm or apple orchard uses IPM practices. If you want to know more about a farm’s management practices, ask the farmer or a staff person at the market, farm store, or U-Pick field.