Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fair Food Farmstand news

Two items about the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market to pass along:

Country Time pork will be delivered tomorrow (Thursday, Dec. 6) for the first time in more than a month, when the owners, the Crivellaros, were involved in a traffic accident.

This week's farmstand e-mail newsletter includes fascinating information from manager Sarah Cain about integrated pest management. I learned an awful lot about the subject from it. I couldn't find a link to a web archive of the article, so below are the relevant portions.

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Fair Food Farmstand newsletter, Dec. 4-9

At the Farmstand, we have always used the term 'Low Spray' in our signage as a way of signifying that a farm is using sustainable, but not organic, growing practices. However, the correct term for the growing method these farms use is IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, and we are now going to be using this term in our signage instead of 'Low Spray.'

IPM was developed in the late 1950's as a response to a boll weevil outbreak in the southern United States. It was found that by interrupting the life cycles of pests and diseases, farmers could control breeding and proliferation and dramatically reduce crop damage. The IPM program is multi-faceted, and the last resort is the spraying of any chemicals. The four main controls are Mechanical, Biological, Cultural and Chemical. Mechanical controls include the continual scouting for pests and damage, trapping with simple glue traps, hand picking, providing barriers of mesh or agricultural fabric to protect the crop, and pheromone lures to disrupt pest mating patterns. Besides scouting on the individual farm, there's some pretty hi-tech help out there. The Penn State Entomology Department even has a real-time radar system that tracks the migration across the state of different pests, called Insect Prediction Maps, it's fascinating. Biological controls involve the use of beneficial insects (think the hard working Lady Bug, who is a ferocious eater, see above), the natural predators, who help to keep the pest insect population down. Actually, "of the [more than] 7 million species of insects in the world, only 350 are considered pests," says the Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management Program Program. The Cultural control involves giving your plant or crop the inputs it needs to thrive -improved soil, correct amounts of water and light, etc. The best defense against pests is a plant with a healthy immune system, so to speak.

The spraying of chemicals is mandated to be the last control, and all non-toxic methods have to have been exhausted before the use of any herbicide or pesticide. Once chemicals are introduced, they have to be done so in stages, starting with the least toxic option, and then gaining in strength. Though there is currently no certification that growers are required to have as IPM practitioners, they do keep their own records. At the bottom of this email you can read a quick interview I did with Ben Wenk, of Three Springs Fruit Farm, about his experiences with IPM.

IPM is not just practiced in agricultural production either, but also in decorative landscaping, on municipal lands and by home gardeners. It gives the grower many tools that are environmentally sensitive, but does not tie them to strictly organic methods should a grower feel he is in danger of loosing his crop to infestation or disease. We're proud to offer many products that are sustainably raised using IPM methods, and hope that you appreciate our new, more accurate labeling.

Sarah Cain interviews farmer Ben Wenk about IPM

Sarah: Could you give me a few quotes about some of the methods you use within the program?

Ben: Gladly. We strive to be able to look our customers in the eye and confidently and truthfully tell them that we grow everything in a responsible and sustainable way. And what this means specifically is practices like extensive monitoring of disease and insects (one of my jobs on the farm). We sync my findings with models of the lifecycles of the pests that affect our crops so that our sprays are as few as possible and as effective as possible (we can wait till populations are most vulnerable).

In regards to what we spray, our first choice would be a product that uses more environmentally friendly or "soft" modes of action. A mode of action is the chemistry term for what is eliminating the pest. Older products (and usually cheaper products) are simply neurotoxins and will affect all of the members of the agroecosystem. When such a product is available, we'll use a product that will affect the morphology or fecundity of a specific organism that's a pest of our crop. In other words, if we detect a large population of Tufted Apple Budmoth, we have a product that will keep its mouthparts from forming – problem solved, they can't eat our apples, they're eliminated while all the other members of the ecosystem thrive (including the ones who are natural enemies of the moth and who will tolerate the application and be abundant when the moth population rebounds – biological control!)

We also work hand in hand with research in innovative and sustainable research being done at Penn State, working as a cooperating grower in a few of their experiments. One project is devoted to studying the area-wide effects of what's called "mating disruption". This pest control disperses naturally-occurring insect sex pheromones all over the orchards, causing the male moths to be very "confused" and unable to mate. No mating = no moths. No spraying = win, win. After all, spraying is costly and time-consuming, and if it were all the same to us, we wouldn't do it. However, the eastern U.S. climate all but requires that we must spray (rain = rot).

Sarah: Who do you show your records to?

Ben: All of our processing fruit buyers receive our spray records and our larger, local wholesale accounts do as well. We stand behind what spraying we do (see above).

Sarah: What are some of the challenges your orchard has faced over the last few years?

Ben: We've been fortunate to have had a consistent pool of labor so far, but that's certainly the biggest challenge that awaits not only us, but everyone in American agriculture.

Our fields were quarantined as part of the state and federal program to quarantine the Plum Pox virus (PPV). Plum pox is a virus that causes a fruit finish problem in some stone fruits (peaches, plums, nectarines, etc.) but poses no threat to human health. I actually had a job testing imported Chilean stone fruits for PPV as an undergrad, so I'm particularly familiar with it. It's a very significant pest in Europe and there is no treatment. PPV was found in a neighbor's orchard and this prevented us from planting new peach trees for a number of years (when we really wanted to be planting peach trees). That's just one example – this job is a new challenge every day.

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