Like the bully that waits for you in the school yard, every single year farmers of every stripe have to face weeds and pests, each one uglier than the last.
Those using organic regenerative agriculture practices approach the battle in a different way.
The term “regenerative agriculture” has caught fire lately, but at its core is the desire to reduce pesticide use and build healthy soil.
General Mills declared their number one pesticide reduction strategy was to transition one million acres, 20 per cent of their source farmland, to regenerative agriculture by 2030.
But what does that look like on the ground?
Most would assume it includes endless hours of hand weeding and astronomical labour costs. It’s more about prevention, good timing and feeding the soil.
For our small 21-acre garden farm operation, our primary pests have been the cucumber beetle, the flea beetle, the cabbage moth and the leaf miner. Each one can devastate entire crops in days, as we learned last year.
We had to get smarter.
Transplanting large, healthy plants under insect netting rather than seeding direct, helped minimize any damage in those crucial early stages, especially for squash and cucumbers. We also timed our crops by planting a trap crop for the primary pests and then planting the actual crop a few weeks later.
The leaf miner, which infests beets and spinach, was fairly simple to address by picking the affected leaves at the first sign of trouble and reducing the population before it could explode.
For Jaymie Thurler of Rutabaga Ranch, a bio-intensive market-garden farm in Brinston, the name of the game is working with nature.
Intensive spacing of their crops crowds out weeds and the rest is done with tarps, cover crops and some hand weeding. Pests are controlled by adding habitat and diversity that attract beneficial insects, birds and frogs. There will always be challenges, Thurler says, but she embodies the values absorbed while learning under Jean Martin Fortier at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps.
“We’re growing better, not bigger… It’s not easy, but we’re doing it and the profits and positive outcomes (environmental, social and soil health) are higher due to our commitment to the cause,” Thurler said. “JM Fortier will feed 200 families off one acre of organically managed market gardens this year. Rutabaga Ranch will feed 100.”
Market gardens may be able to do it, but what about larger operations?
Tom and Julia Booijink run Jamink Farms, a 650-acre organic dairy farm that milks 85 head. The cows are pastured at night on small paddocks around the immediate acreage surrounding the barn with the ultimate goal of implementing successional grazing with other animals. Although Tom admits, “We’re not there yet.”
With more than 300 workable acres and an additional 140 acres of rented land, crop management is also very much a part of the job description.
Rather than using pesticides he focuses on building soil and plant health through a crop rotation of corn, rye and three years of alfalfa and by using foliar feeding so they can ward off pests naturally.
“That’s where we want to get to. To have plants that are resistant to pests on their own because they’re healthy,” Booijink said.
Pests aren’t necessarily present because a pesticide isn’t being used. It could indicate deficiencies in the plant and, more likely, the soil. Treating the dirt is literally going to the root of the problem.
Weeds are controlled with mechanical weeding, with two passes of a 55-acre corn eld taking up to four days. Tom admits they’re pushing for more yield per acre than when his parents went organic with the farm in 2002 and is satisfied with his alfalfa yields, but, as for corn, not yet.
There are signs that foliar feeding is making a difference with more alfalfa stems that are square rather than hollow and minimal leaf hopper damage.
Weeding out the bully in the field can seem like a never ending fight.
But if you promote the health of the plant, outsmart the enemy and welcome a few allies, that fight can tip in your favour and promote the health of your land.
Tom Schoch runs Gar-Eden Farms, a vegetable farm in Chesterville, Ontario.