Our practices all start with a soil driven, plant positive approach; living and mineralized soils create healthy plants and healthy plant can defend themselves from pest and disease. We’re also careful to create safe havens and diverse habits for a diverse insect population. We keep in mind that every action has a biological consequence and work to balance the ideal and the practical in every task.
We start our own plants, this lets us control the process from the vary beginning. While we never use treated or GM seed, we don’t always pay the premium for certified organic seed. Most of our seed comes from either Johnny’s or Seedway. We choose varieties for their taste and natural disease resistance, this is a plant’s innate ability to use its own immune response to defend itself from bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens. Seeds are started in a certified organic, compost based, growing medium from Vermont Compost. These inputs, combined with our careful attention, provides us with strong and sturdy transplant that are ready for the field.
In order to maintain healthy and biologically diverse soil, we use crop rotation, compost, organic fertilizer from Fertrell, and limited tillage. Our crop rotation ensures that we don’t grow the same family of vegetable on a particular plot without a two year break in between. This reduces the opportunities for pests or pathogens to accumulate and helps to balance nutrient levels over time. We make compost on site. Compost feeds the soil organisms that fed the plant, releasing nutrients over time and improving soil structure. To give our heavy feeders the extra boost they need to produce a quality crop, we use an organic fertilizer from Fertrel. The fertilizer is made up of chicken manure, kelp, blood meal, cotton seed meal, and rock phosphates. Cover crops are sown for multiple reasons – weed suppression, nutrient capture, to protect soil from wind and water erosion, to produce organic matter and to provide habitat for soil organisms. This ideal has it’s learning curve and practical limitations and we are working toward being more comprehensive in our use of cover crops.
Plants with healthy starts and a balanced soil don’t require much in pest management. We are willing to tolerate a certain level of pest damage. When damage begins to reduce product quality we use a few different angles to deal with problem insects. Some pests are best prevented by understanding and monitoring their life-cycle and disrupting it, as with cabbage root fly. Sometimes a simple row cover is used to create a physical barrier, as can be the case with cucumber beetles or flea beetles. We do use a biological insecticide known as Dipel. Dipel is the trade name for Bacillus thuringiensis(Bt). Bt is a natural occurring bacterium, that when ingested by moth larvae, crystalizes in the gut and kills them. It is completely benign to mammals and amphibians. We use this to control both cabbage loper on brassica crops, hornworms on tomatoes, and worms on corn. Whenever we apply we are careful to target only specific crops and never apply indiscriminately. Another tool we use regularly is diatomaceous earth (DE). DE is fossilized remains of algae, at a chemical level it is just calcium carbonate. DE is razor sharp at the microscopic level and works mechanically to reduce insect populations. DE is also used in animal feed as a anti-caking agent, calcium source, and to protect it from pest larvae. Many organic stockmen use it to reduce parasites in livestock. We use it mainly to protect the base of susceptible plants. It is mixed with a rough compost to encourage pests to lay their eggs in the mix, which the larvae don’t make it out. We also use it on our dogs to keep fleas at bay.
Bacteria and fungus play an important part of the ecology on our farm. They help to break down organic matter, releasing nutrients for growing crops. Because we want to encourage a healthy biome on our farm, we refrain from using any fungicides or bactericides, even ones OMRI listed, including copper sulfate. We’d rather encourage a diversity of microbes that compete with each other, than try to eliminate them creating a ‘biological vacuum’ that is susceptible to invasion. This approach can be supplemented by using pro-botics, such as foliar application of a living compost tea. To help our plants stay healthy from bacterial and fungal pathogens we use cultural practices that promote good ventilation. Proper plant density, trellising and pruning all play into a system that lets plant breath.
Our approach to growing is never static or secret. We are always glad to exchange information with growers of all levels and we are always asking other farmers for their insights. Through the seasons I’ve learned that the more you try to control nature the less your ‘solutions’ work. I’ll continue to observe nature and look for insights into ecological management with every task and season.