By guest blogger Caroline Hampton
For a farmer, the summer months mean war. Every vegetable that is grown, every bite that a consumer takes, has been fought for by a farmer. In July and August, I’ve had to battle against pests, diseases, and weeds. The warmer weather means that pest insects and animals are reproducing, and often insects will have several generations of offspring before cold weather hits and knocks back the population. Here in the High Country, our summers are often very wet, and the ample rain has provided the perfect opportunity for weeds to thrive and disease to take hold.
Since this is my first year farming independently, creating a pest and disease management plan is new to me. In the past, as a farmworker, I have been mostly unaware of the spray regimen that the farmers I worked for followed, or if they had a spray regimen. There are many sprays that are approved for organic growing that I use on my farm. These sprays are derived from natural rather than synthetic ingredients and break down readily in the environment, so they don’t become a persistent problem for non-target insects and don’t leave residues that harm the consumer.
Though using sprays to control pests and diseases is normal and often necessary, like many farmers that I respect, I began farming with the idea that I would not spray anything, ever, and optimistically believed I could manage field conditions enough to keep my plants healthy and mostly disease and pest free. The realization that I, and many other farmers, had to come to is that the choice to spray is often a matter of having a crop or not, and for many of us, not having a crop means not making money, and is not an option. It’s also hard to stomach crop failure, and when you’ve grown a plant from a seed, and taken care of it for weeks, intervention in its demise seems like the obvious choice.
My farm has been affected by many of the usual pests- flea beetles, squash bugs, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, and cabbage worms. Use of sprays like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium, and neem oil, have been helpful respectively as a means of population control, and as a pest deterrent. Many of our pest populations seem to have been reduced this year, or had a late start due to our cold winter. The harlequin beetle has been particularly bothersome, targeting crops in the broccoli family, and though most of my spring cold crops were harvested before the onslaught, I have kept kale growing through the summer, and have spent time knocking the red beetles off the plants, then squishing them between my fingers. I admit that at the beginning of the season, I felt squeamish about squishing insects, and then once I got used to squishing soft insects, I still was unnerved by the crunch of a hard beetle shell. But out of necessity, I have learned to speed down a row, squishing efficiently, though I may cringe a little bit.
Sometimes cultural practices can make all the difference with pest control. The land that we grow on has quite a large japanese beetle population, something that is hard to remedy because the larvae live through the winter in the soil, and come out again the next year. Japanese beetles especially like fruits and flowers, so they attacked our grape trellises, our flowers, like my zinnias, and also my basil. Interestingly, I found that after the beetles had been damaging my basil for weeks, when areas around the basil were weed whacked so there were no high stands of weeds near the basil, they left the basil alone. All in all, my experiences with pest insects have led me to educate myself on pests and pest prevention and determent, and despite pest pressure, most crops have remained productive.
Disease has been a big disappointment and wake up call for me this season. When moving up here, I was told that the wet summers often make for tomato crop failure, but coming from the Piedmont, I’ve had a love for the many varieties, and an obsession with eating fresh summer tomatoes. I decided I would at least plant enough tomatoes for myself to enjoy, and that turned into planting about 200 plants. I was warned that the plants need quite a bit of room between them for airflow, so I thinned my planting so that it was about 100 plants, spaced two to three feet apart. Up here, because of the moisture, it is advised to spray tomatoes for blight starting soon after planting, on rougly a weekly basis, rotating the spray used between several different products. July was a very wet month, with rain almost daily, and low nighttime temperatures mean that even when there is not rain, the leaves of the tomatoes will be wet with dew. This is the ideal condition for blight, a fungus that travels by spores in the air, and my tomatoes were infected near the end of July, before any fruit had turned red. The disease infected and killed all of the plants within about a week. I spent a lot of money on infrastructure for my tomato trellising this year, buying t posts between which I strung the tomatoes. To have a total crop failure means no return on that investment, at least for this year.
With the constant moisture, my cucumbers also ended up with downy mildew, another fungal disease. They continue to produce, but their yields are diminished, something that is sad to see after the vines were so thick with yellow blossoms that promised a bounty of fruit. Solutions for this include using sprays to control and prevent downy mildew next year, possibly trellising cucumbers in the future instead of letting them vine on the ground, and staggering multiple plantings. I also have to decide whether it is worth it to me to plant tomatoes or cucumbers, two crops that are common at our farmer’s market. I believe it may be worth it to leave the tomatoes to larger farmers, who most importantly can grow tomatoes in hoop houses, covered and protected from rain. Finding funding for a hoop house for the Farmer Incubator and Grower (F.I.G.) property where I farm would be very beneficial for all of our producers. Plants could be set out earlier in spring, and crops would be protected from the elements, rain being the most damaging to crops in our area.
I assure myself as Fall officially approaches, that the season is downhill from here. I have planted a large crop of fall brassicas and seeded spinach, carrots, lettuces, arugula that are all sprouting. I hope to seed a few more crops that will hopefully be successful this fall and won’t be hit with an early freeze. Spending my days out in my fields, I am always reminded that this work is a gamble, and a struggle.Agricultural work is a reminder that to build something takes a long time. Hard work and experience will aid in my success, but conditions change every season, every month, every day in farming. For now, I am hooked to the pleasure and willing to endure the pain.