On-Farm Training and Participatory Learning: Biologically-based IPM an sustainable Farming Practices for Amish and Mennonite Vegetable Growers
Training and participatory learning on biologically-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM), soil quality, and sustainable vegetable production have been lacking in Pennsylvania, especially among the Amish and conservative Mennonites. This project addresses these issues among fresh market vegetable growers in Lancaster County, PA, and will serve as a training model for other groups.
Through weekly, on-farm personal field training sessions with an IPM/sustainable agriculture specialist and educational workshops, growers will learn pest identification, pest life cycles, and techniques of a biologically-based IPM approach. Growers will create a more natural and sustainable pest management system as they learn to effectively use scouting and record keeping; crop rotation; sanitation; cultural, mechanical, and biological controls; and biorational and reduced-risk pesticides. The trainers will gather information from these interactions and make it available through production of a training manual.
During on-farm visits and the educational workshops held each year, participants will also learn the fundamentals of dynamic soil quality: soil organic matter; the soil food web and ecosystem services; soil-based pest antagonism and the effects of agricultural practices on these benefits related to soil quality. Growers will learn about soil sampling and the interpretation of soil test results, as they relate to soil quality and plant growth. Grower confidence in sustainable methods will increase as they regularly interact with the specialist, leading to the growers’ independent use of the methods. This on-farm, customized participatory approach will facilitate the immediate adaptation and adoption of biologically-based IPM, soil quality, and sustainable agriculture principles.
Milestone 1: Project team will develop a manual outlining IPM techniques and sustainable practices for vegetable production, which will be refined from experiences during the project.
Milestone 2: Each winter of the three-year project, a new group of 15 vegetable growers will attend a meeting to learn about the project and express their level of interest and commitment. Of these 15 growers, 12 to 14 will choose to participate that year.
Milestone 3: Participants will supply past pesticide and farm management records so that project investigators/trainers can determine participant baseline usage of IPM and sustainable practices.
Milestone 4: Each year, all participants will host a weekly visit by an IPM/sustainable agriculture specialist throughout the growing season (greenhouse transplant production to field harvest), resulting in 10 participants learning and adopting new IPM and sustainable practices.
Milestone 5: Each year, 12 participants will learn to take soil samples for submission to an analytical lab and learn to read and interpret the test results.
Milestone 6: Of the 40 participating vegetable farms, 35 will make fertilization decisions based on soil testing, thus reducing nutrient loading and the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Milestone 7: Each year, 75 vegetable producers will attend an all-day educational workshop to learn about this project, vegetable IPM, sustainable production, and soil quality. In addition, 10 project participants will attend two half-day mini-workshops held during each growing season to address the current situation in the field and to further their IPM/sustainable agriculture knowledge and practice (the goal is behavior change).
Performance Target: Of the 40 participating vegetable farms, 30 will reduce traditional pesticide usage by 50% through the utilization of learned Integrated Pest Management skills as well as adopt at least two of the following sustainable practices: crop rotation, soil-building (incorporation of cover crops, green manures), reduction of deep tillage, and crop diversification.
The initial phase of the project began by selecting a group of growers who showed a strong interest and desire to change their current conventional production practices to ones based on biologically-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM), soil quality, and sustainable vegetable production. In the winter of 2008, Wade Esbenshade, sustainable agriculture and IPM specialist from Penn State University, spoke to local vegetable growers at two produce auction meetings in Eastern Lancaster County. From that meeting, a list of 12 cooperators was created during the late winter.
Along with past pesticide records and other information gathered on participants current production practices, a survey was administered to the growers to assess their farming background, current pest control program, and perceptions of biologically-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM), soil quality, and sustainable agriculture. This information was used to determine participant baseline usage of IPM and sustainable practices.
Weekly on-farm visits to participating growers were made by Wade Esbenshade and Cathy Thomas to teach growers pest-scouting techniques and identification, lifecycles of pests, and proper record keeping to monitor pest populations and determine pest thresholds. During these scouting visits, the lifecycles of biocontrol agents and the timing of biocontrol releases according to pest lifecycles and populations were also taught to growers. The usage and application timing of compatible pesticides was taught in order to form a complete pest management system. Grower’s also learned the importance of soil health and fertility as it pertains to plant growth and the plant’s ability to resist or tolerate pest pressures.
In 2008, a manual outlining IPM techniques and sustainable practices for vegetable production was begun with the first draft expected to be finished for the beginning on the 2009 growing season. The manual will continue to be revised during the remaining years of the project.
An all-day workshop has been developed for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference in February 2009 looking at the use of IPM and Biocontrols to control vegetable pests. A local meeting with project participants will also be held in January 2009 covering topics such as cover crops for improved weed and pest control and improved soil health.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Growers reported numerous benefits to the program and the new techniques that they acquired. Growers learned how to track local pest problems and use control methods only when thresholds had been reached. This led to most participants having better timing with their pesticides and an overall reduction in pesticide usage. As growers are reducing the pesticide load on their farms and in the environment, they are also increasing the profitability and therefore the sustainability of their farming operations. One grower noted that in past years he had spent approximately $2,000 on pesticides each year. This year he had spent less than $500 on pesticides and had relatively similar yields and quality compared to other years. He also noted that this was the best pepper crop he has had. Another participating grower mentioned, “This is the first time that I didn’t spray my cantaloupes in June and yet they still look great.”
Pesticide records and other information pertaining to their pest control and sustainable practices are being collected from each grower. Unfortunately, not all growers have had complete past pesticide records to use for comparison. In these cases, general past pesticide usage information was gathered. Preliminary results show a trend towards lower pesticide usage and cost with similar control from previous years.