Knowing Your Roots

Blog 17

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 and three of your plants are mysteriously missing – cutworms! What are they? Where did they come from? The rest of your plants are hidden by a thicket of weeds. ‘I didn’t plant those!’ you think to yourself. It’s July and 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.

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!

While you can wait until next year’s growing season and hope things go better, however, that’s not an option for the farmers of the Central Sands, which is 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-the-basics approach where you learn everything there is to know about your crop’s enemies, where they come from and when, how they behave, what their vulnerabilities are and how you can 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. These tactics help farmers anticipate and keep pest populations below damaging population levels and only use crop protectants when they need 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 crop protectant 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.”

Since nature is 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.

That’s where an integral part of IPM called crop scouting comes in.  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 threaten.

By using IPM, farmers are able to grow high quality crops, reduce pesticide inputs and consequently, help the environment by providing greater species biodiversity and improved biological control of pests in a more stable ecosystem that protects natural resources.

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