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.
In 2009, a new group of twelve growers who showed a strong interest and desire to change their current conventional production practices to ones ones based on biologically-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM), soil quality, and sustainable vegetable production was selected for the project. Along with past pesticide records and other information gathered on participant’s 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 educate growers about a wide range of biologically-based IPM techniques. Wade and Cathy helped to explain pest life cycles in order to help participants become aware of when each pest is most likely to become a problem on their farm. Wade also kept growers up to date on local pest trapping results performed on several participating farms as well as showed growers how to access the PA IPM Program’s pest monitoring information. 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. 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.
Growers learned about native beneficial organisms and how they can contribute to controlling pests. Information on identifying and conserving native beneficial insects was given to growers. Several growers were amazed at the number of natural predators that were found in their fields when high-risk pesticides were not used. Some growers chose not to spray in order to allow the beneficial insects to control the pests. One participating grower mentioned, “This is the first time that I didn’t spray my cantaloupes in June and yet they still look great.”
A manual outlining IPM techniques and sustainable practices for vegetable production is continuing to be developed and revised with grower input and first-hand experiences being incorporated into it during the remaining years of the project.
Educational workshops and meetings were held both locally and region-wide to facilitate further learning of growers and to promote this project. An all-day workshop was developed and delivered for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference in February 2009 looking at the use of IPM and biological controls to manage vegetable pests. Twenty growers from across the mid-Atlantic region attended this event.
Two other seminars on biologically based IPM and the relationship between soil health and pest management were presented by Wade Esbenshade at Pennsylvania Certified Organic’s annual meeting in December of 2008 and a local grower’s meeting in March of 2009 in New Holland, PA. Another informational presentation giving an overview of this and other similar projects the PA IPM Program is currently working on was given at the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania’s annual meeting in October of 2009.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Information on pest levels, pest crop damage, and control success was gathered throughout the growing season. Pesticide usage information detailing type, quantity, and frequency was gathered from participants. Unfortunately, not all growers had complete pesticide records. In these cases, general pesticide usage information was gathered.
Data is showing that equal or greater control of insect pests with an equally low amount of crop damage can be achieved with a biologically-based IPM program on most crops. The only crop which was discovered to be a challenge to achieve equal control of insect pests was sweet corn. Satisfactory control was achieved in most cases, however slightly more crop damage did occur when high-risk pesticides were eliminated. Growers selling directly to consumers did not have a problem selling this corn, on the other hand, buyers at local produce auctions do not allow for any crop damage from caterpillar pests. More work in controlling sweet corn pests without high-risk pesticides as well as more consumer education in the value of crops produced without high-risk pesticides is needed.
On average, growers were able to eliminate one to two pesticide applications per crop and were able to eliminate all restricted-use pesticides and FQPA priority pesticides (e.g. organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids) on their farms. Although the reduction in the number of pesticide applications reduced pesticide costs, the switch from high risk pesticides to reduced risk pesticides and biocontrols was more expensive in some instances. However, project growers with a direct market were able to sell their produce at a premium price.
All project participants used crop rotations and cover crops on their farms. Growers were looking at ways to diversify the cover crops being used and to maximize the benefits they provide to overall soil health and crop fertility. It has been a challenge to have growers reduced tillage due to their usage of horses and the equipment they have available for them. However, growers are looking for ways to reduce inversion tillage and are trying to increase the use of cover crops to off set the use of tillage when needed.