Protecting the environment while managing pests:
Fighting the critters that devour our plants is pretty much a given, whether you are tending a small kitchen garden or farming 1,000 acres; if you want your crop to succeed, then you need to know not only what your crop needs, but what makes those critters tick!
Imagine those delicious tomatoes you just planted, you can already taste that juicy and tangy first bite! But not so fast, it’s not quite that simple. It’s June now and three of your plants are mysteriously missing, the rest hidden by a thicket of weeds—cutworms, what are they, where did they come from? Weeds, I didn’t plant those! It’s July, we are back on track, but wait, half the leaves have been torn off, the rest are covered in brown spots—hornworms? The news says it’s early blight, how, why? So it goes on into fall when you finally pick your few remaining treasures before some new plague devours them. Time to look forward to next year when you know you hope things will go better!
Waiting until the next growing season is not an option for the farmers of the Central Sands, one of the country’s premier potato and vegetable growing areas. There is just too much at stake: 150,000 acres of prime potatoes and vegetables worth billions of dollars, 35,000 jobs on the line and millions of people who rely on these crops just to meet their basic nutritional needs.
Keeping ahead of the pests is the only option. But, how? The solution is IPM or integrated pest management, a back to basics approach where you get to know everything there is to know about your crop’s enemies, where do they come from and when, how do they behave, what are their vulnerabilities and how can we exploit them. The Central Sands farmers have pioneered IPM since the 1980s; they worked closely with a team of University of Wisconsin researchers to develop a system to manage pests using a sophisticated blend of cultural and biological tactics to anticipate and keep pest populations below damaging population levels and only use pesticides when needed to restore balance. They have earned a well-deserved national reputation as leaders in the IPM field and received the prestigious Gift to the Earth from the World Wildlife Fund in 1998 for reducing pesticide use by a remarkable 40%. “The credit for this impressive success belongs to the farmers of Wisconsin, who have set a benchmark for the nation” said Sarah Lynch, WWF Director of Agricultural Pollution Prevention. “Future generations will thank them for helping ensure a safer working environment, cleaner water and improved wildlife habitat for the regions many species that share the Central Sands landscape with commercial vegetable operations”.
Since nature is as always evolving, IPM is a continuous process—both in the field and in the lab. Researchers study when pests are likely to arrive and from where; develop predictive models to forewarn farmers (and gardeners) of impending threats; find ways to reduce pest levels culturally and biologically both in and outside the crop; breed varieties that could resist attack; identify and preserve key natural enemies of pests and figure out exactly how many pests are needed to impact yield and quality. Crop scouting is an integral part of IPM. Trained crop scouts go out into fields, usually once a week during the growing season, to monitor pest populations and assess the crop’s overall health. They know what to look for before there’s a problem. They monitor and report their findings back to the farmers, who can then deliver precise corrective measures if damaging levels threatened.
By using IPM, farmers are able to grow high quality crops, reduce pesticide inputs and consequently, benefit the environment by providing greater species biodiversity and improved biological control of pests in a more stable ecosystem that protects natural resources.