Organic farm turns to chicken and bugs to battle pests

October 05, 2016

When it comes to organic farming, the battle with weeds and pests can be an ongoing struggle. While organic farming guidelines allow the use of certain nonsynthetic pesticides, they can be expensive and some farmers prefer to stay away from them for a variety of different reasons.

So, when one organic farmer decided to purchase of a 40 acre farm full of weeds and insects in central Missouri, he had to come up with his own way to control the pesky insects and noxious weeds that were waiting for him.

To do this, an article explains, he planted what are known as "trap crops," sacrificial plants not raised for harvest but that are extra tasty to insects like squash bugs. Trap crops, like Blue Hubbard squash, attract the harmful bugs, leaving the farmer’s zucchinis, for example, largely untouched.

"The bugs will move in and they'll stop at that point and eat those plants," said farmer Gary Wenig. "So then you spray that portion of your garden only. You don't have to spray the food you're eating."

Wenig explained this idea like a perimeter defense system, but said he wanted to take it a step further and cut out all pesticides — conventional and those approved for use under the organic label.

"We have free-range chickens, and the chickens love those bugs," he said in the article. So, "instead of spraying [the trap crops], why don't we get the chickens to eat them?"

Once the patches of planted trap crops were grown, Wenig rolled out a chicken tractor — basically a large, mobile coop on wheels with a mesh-wire bottom — and let several chickens in there feast on the bugs from above. Every few hours, he moved the mobile coop to a new patch. The arrangement has saved Wenig money on both pesticides and feed for his chickens and ducks.

While the trap crop and chicken system has worked for the Wenigs' small farm, it might not be feasible on a larger, conventional farm. That's why university researchers, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are looking at ways to combat pests by introducing predatory bugs.

Garden stores sell ladybugs to customers so they can release the helpful insects in their yards to eat the aphids that plague tomato plants. But there are other pests that are damaging many more acres than the backyard aphids — and in larger numbers.

"Take the soybean aphid right now," Ben Puttler, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, said in the article. "It's considered a pest because [farmers] don't have its natural enemies. And we're trying to introduce natural enemies for it."

The tiny soybean aphid popped up in the U.S. around 2000, and sucks the juices out of the plant, which can lead to fungus and mold. The bugs can ruin up to 40% of a farmer's crop, according to the North Central Soybean Research Program.

Researchers went to China and Japan to find the aphid's natural enemy. They found the teeny, tiny, parasitic wasp, who inject their eggs into aphids. The larvae then eat the aphid from the inside out before emerging as an adult wasp.

Researchers are testing natural predators for other agricultural pests, too, including stink bugs and the infamous emerald ash borer, which has been devastating to ash trees all over the country.

But sometimes it's the plant itself that bugs farmers. Weeds, like the invasive garlic mustard, can drive an organic farmer crazy, as it can stop grass and tree seedlings from starting, making it harder for grazing pastures and timber forests to reproduce. To combat this plant, researchers are currently testing a few weevil species and tiny wasps that love to chow down on garlic mustard.

"Some will attack the leaves, some will attack the stems," said Hank Stelzer, a forestry specialist. "They will both suck the life, if you will, out of the plant. But that's also where they lay their eggs, so they get more of those critters out there."

Of course, there is always danger when it comes to introducing a new species to an ecosystem and creating an even bigger problem. Stelzer said that's why the USDA first conducts rigorous tests in quarantined labs. Regulatory approval can take decades, and many potential options don't pan out.

For Wenig, however, he says he plans to expand his trap crop perimeter to encompass all of his garden plots, including his high tunnel greenhouse. He has also teamed up with Lincoln University to do more studies and is hoping to get a grant from the USDA to implement the larger project.

"We're going to build two fences with about 15 feet in between them so we can get the tractor in there," he said. "And we're just going to plant nothing in there but sacrificial plants and beneficial insect plants."

Then, he said, he'll unleash the chickens.

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Category: Food Safety