Down on the Farm: Good guys and bad guys on the farm – Leader-Telegram


Releasing ladybugs onto frisee endive plants in the greenhouse.

Releasing ladybugs onto frisee endive plants in the greenhouse.
Insects! Sometimes they are a great friend like pollinating bees or spiders that trap other insects as food. Other bugs are entirely destructive, like tomato bores and cutworms, which destroy crops for their own gain.
So often in commercial farming, the focus is on the bad bugs and their destruction, to the detriment of the helpful insects and the environment. Insect populations play critical roles in natural systems and provide food for other species that we love like birds and some mammals. Massive insect population decimation across the country is becoming of great concern because of how this will impact ecological balance and diversity.
Therefore, it’s critical to consider finding a sustainable and regenerative approach to our relationships with insects — one that fosters the good guys while keeping the bad guys in check, so we can continue growing healthy foods for the community.
One of the great blessings of such a cold winter is that there are far fewer garden pests come summertime. With a mild winter, foes like army beetles that thrive farther south attack cucumber and squash plants. The harshness of our northern climate does the work of keeping these bad guys at bay.
In our aquaponics greenhouse we keep the temperatures warm all year — growing lettuce, kale, chard, fresh herbs and more even through the cold winter months. While outside is blanketed in snow and ice, inside is lush and green and moist. It’s a haven for the plants, but it can also be a haven for the insects that want to eat the plants.
Throughout the year, we maintain careful biosecurity practices to keep pests out of the greenhouse — changing clothes and shoes from our farm activities to prevent accidentally carrying in a pest. There’s a separate room at the entrance with a fan that helps to blow off recent hitchhikers before entering the main part of the greenhouse.
There have been a few, very sneaky pests that have made their way into the greenhouse over the years. One especially pernicious species is the diamondback moth, which can fold itself into a tiny, streamline shape and slip in through cracks. One female moth can lay hundreds of eggs, which turn into chomping green caterpillars that delight in all members of the broccoli family. Lifecycles run quickly in the warm environment, and a handful of moths can turn into a flock in what feels like no time at all.
For the last couple of years, these pernicious diamondback moths have found a way to sneak into the greenhouse in the fall, just before their ability to continue repopulating in the natural environment outside would have to go dormant with winter approaching. When the bad guys get inside, then what? Time to call in the good guys!
As annoying as they can be, Japanese ladybeetles are a key ally in consuming pest insects. Their appetite is voracious, and both the adults and pupae are quite active hunters of their prey, including insect eggs, larvae and aphids of all ages. During the warm fall days, when they come out in droves, we’re out with containers and jars, catching as many as we can and releasing them into the greenhouse. As spring approaches and they begin reappearing on windows, once again we’re catching and re-homing them into the growing space to give them the opportunity to chomp away on the plant predators that are wreaking havoc.
Green lacewings and tiny predatory wasps are also of great help. We order these in their egg form and have them shipped to the farm at regular intervals to release in the greenhouse when pests are present. A different species of tiny predatory wasps has also been a major part of our counterattack on stable flies, which are a great annoyance to our livestock. The good guys really do help fight the good fight in a way that honors the natural processes of the environment.
Waging war on greenhouse pests with chemicals is not an option with an aquaponics operation — not even chemicals approved in organic practices like neem oil or insecticidal soaps. The fish, which are such an integral part of the biodynamic system, are extremely sensitive to any chemicals or chemical residue that would become part of the recirculating water. Without the fish, the complex balance of life and nutrients in the system falls apart. Visualizing that out onto a larger scale, if only a tiny residue of neem oil could kill the fish in our greenhouse, what are the massive quantities of chemical pesticides doing to the health of the fish in our nation’s waterways?
Sometimes even all the good guys working together isn’t quite enough to subdue the foe. Near the turn of the year, when the days are shortest and the growth in the greenhouse is the least, we’ve learned to take a break from growing brassicas. This means there is no food for the diamondback moth caterpillars to eat, and within a month or so, their populations vanish from starvation. We can then replant and start again. This offers a zero chemical final solution to the invasion.
So, if you find some of the good guys, release them either on your house plants during the cold months or outside during the warm months. We appreciate their work on the farm, and we know that you’ll appreciate the benefits of their work, too, as we create sustainable, biodynamic solutions to growing foods all year. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com
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