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A Whole-Farm Approach to Managing Pests

tilling rye between vineyard rows
Growing rye between vineyard rows suppresses weeds - both by smothering and by producing allelopathic substances that inhibit weed germination - and attracts beneficial insects such as lady beetles to this vineyard in Monterey County, Calif.
Photo by Chuck Ingels.

Before Steve Groff tossed out his conventional pest controls in favor of a more comprehensive, ecologically based strategy, his 175-acre Pennsylvania vegetable farm attracted a parade of pests.

Now he plants a winter cover crop of hairy vetch and rye and lets it grow 5 feet tall. Each spring, he knocks it down with a rolling chopper, then transplants his tomatoes into a thick mulch. Growing annual cover crops became a cheaper and more effective way to control the pests that plague vegetable growers.

'I have yet to use any insecticide for Colorado potato beetle. They don't like the cover crop mulch,' he says. In addition to adding nitrogen and organic matter to the soil, the cover crop mulch also seems to stall early blight by keeping disease organisms from splashing up onto the plants.

'It's working for us,' says Groff - and it's just one of the fistful of tools he uses to stymie pests.

Neither Groff's farm nor any other will ever be entirely pest proof. But by completely rethinking his farming practices from top to bottom, he has made his system much more resilient and resistant to pests.

Like Groff, producers across the country are changing their pest management practices to move toward whole-farm strategies based on ecological principles to control troublesome insects, weeds and diseases. Recognizing the importance of many tactics rather than just one deceptively easy fix, researchers, too, have begun testing new, comprehensive ways to control weeds, diseases and insect pests.

Their intent mirrors what early advocates of integrated pest management (IPM) believed - that a single approach is a poor substitute for a system-wide strategy to control pests. The ecological focus they emphasize goes beyond current IPM practices, mimicking nature as much as possible in an industry that disturbs the landscape in the process of growing food and fiber. This evolving breed of researcher seeks to control pests in ways other than with expensive, 'easy-fix' chemicals that have unknown impacts on natural resources and human health. Instead, they are creating whole systems that rely on diversity and soil health to keep pests at bay.

A whole farm ecological approach calls for rethinking management practices to design an improved system that integrates ecological pest management into other aspects of crop and soil management. Controlling pests should be linked to soil organic matter management, soil nutrient management, tillage and efforts to lessen compaction, as well as creating field boundaries, borders and buffers designed to protect waterways.


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