Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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I gave a presentation to the Organic BMSB workgroup on how our growing year faired and what we did to rectify last year’s infestation. We improved marginally, however I look at improvement as a great step, no matter the measurement. Improvement equates to moving forward in our fight to grow fruits and vegetables organically against a devastating adversary.
I was finally able to put faces to the voices I have heard on all the conference calls. As usual, I learned more from everyone else then I was able to impart but that is why I wanted to be in the group to begin with. I could not stand by having suffered the losses from 2010 without trying to do something, education, as with most things, is the first step. At least this year I had much less anxiety presenting to such a distinguished group. I am still in awe of the work they do and the dedication they show. I am a babe in the woods filled with entomology experts, seasoned practitioners and other heavy hitters in the organic growing community. I met Jeff Moyer from the Rodale Institute and Dr. Russ Mizell from Florida State University. We followed Dr. Mizell's 2008 native stinkbug study to establish a trap crop solution for this year. During the two-day event, I found I was still writing jargon down, for later research, but the longer I listened the more things started to fall into place.
Entomologist from around the country showed up to participate. It was truly fascinating to sit and listen to the work that they have been doing this past year and years past. They have been studying this bug for sometime. It was not until the last few years that BMSB started to show their true capacity for fruit and vegetable damage. If left unchecked many small organic farms will suffer and more than likely go out of business. The Washington Post recently had an article about a peach grower, in the area, that decided to stop instead of continuing to suffer monetary loses due to the bug.
Orchards around Maryland and Pennsylvania are suffering great losses. The bug continues to hitchhike across the United States with no indication of abatement. Once in a place they multiply consuming the most desirable and costly flora. They are not only destructive they are dumb. They fly but they do not know how to land. They land by hitting something first. Then they either grasp on to the surface in order to stay put or bounce off to fall to the ground. Most times, they bounce off. If it is a hard surface, you hear them hit the surface and another thump when they hit hard ground.
Besides trap cropping we will try native parasitoids this year. Parasitoids lay eggs on their host and the larvae feed off the host in order to mature. As the larvae grow, the host dies. Like the Trichogramma wasp laying eggs on the green tomato hornworm. We will try different species and wasps that are predacious.
We are fortunate that we can participate in the group and learn as we go. I do feel better about growing but we are not out of trouble. This season’s grow area has hedgerows and tree lines surrounding the land. Both places are over-winter habitation areas for the BMSB. We will also plant near the barn, another highly concentrated area for over-wintering bugs. We have our planning cut out for us, we will need to come up with a perimeter defense that takes into account both ground and air assault. Adult BMSB are high in the trees and glide down to earth. Planting a trap crop too close to the trees will not stop them from making it into the cash crop area.
We will put up trap crops, physical barriers and try repellant plants on the interior. The idea of the repellant plant is if the bug gets through the trap crop the next thing they get to is an undesirable plant, which may turn them back around to the trap crop for food. We will have to see; what I do know is the more we learn the better able to educate others. If we are able to further that cause then it fits within our own mission. Without education, we are all lost.
Buy Local: Go out and meet your local farmer, they are waiting for you
Posted by Brian
@ 07:59 PM EST
I was fired recently as the official spokesperson for the farm. Seems that the last interview I did turned out to be perceived as negative. Now I have heard that publicity, good or bad, is still publicity and perception is in the eye of the beholder. The article centered on the organic research of the brown marmarated stinkbug, the damage that it caused and the potential for damage to organic crops. We have had a hard time fighting this bug and we have lost entire crops. Just because we are, a small farm does not mean that the losses were small.
Going into a growing season you have certain expectations, profit is one of them. You dream, plan and then you contingency plan. In Maryland, you need pre-approval for any amendment used in the coming growing season. Amendment means anything applied to the crop or land. This is a growing trend among organic certifiers.
For the grower this puts extra emphasis on contingency planning. You need to know what you may face from an environmental standpoint. That was a lot easier to do before 2010. As a part of growing, you learn what bugs, viruses, bacteria and weather conditions are like in your region. Armed with that information the amount of variables you face begin to dwindle. It is not as daunting as it seems. That is until you face an unknown enemy with no known organic amendment available.
Some of the older farmers around here talk about when Japanese beetles first invaded and the similarities. Nevertheless, they are talking about a different world and time when the scientist developed a quick chemical response. The uses of those chemicals are band today, for good reason, but conventional farmers did get relief relatively quick.
Organic growers on the other hand do not get quick relief. The normal process for allowing new amendments takes time. The amendment needs vetting for organic properties, it needs a review period in which growers and others can comment, then it goes to the National Organic Standards Board for discussion and vote and if it makes it there, it goes to the Secretary of the USDA for approval in the NOP. Recently, the EPA came out with a few rulings allowing the limited use of certain chemicals. This was great news for the conventional folks but it had little impact on the organic folks. The EPA went as far as approving some banned organic materials for use.
The problem is, as I understand the regulations, EPA does not have final say over what is and what is not allowed in the NOP. Using any of these EPA approved organic amendments could very likely result in the decertification of the land where the amendment was applied. The complete pre-approval process, mentioned above, is designed to prevent that decertification from happening. Once you get the certifiers approval, you have in essence obtained the right to use the amendment accordingly. However, you must still conform to the NOP, IPM, Nutrient Management and other environmental guidelines. There is no quick fix in organics and that is what makes growing tenuous when facing an invasive species with no natural predators or is impervious to existing organic amendments.
When Dr. Nielson, from Michigan State University, gave the reporter our name it was so the reporter could get a growers perspective on the bug and what we face being organic. Having lost what we lost and living with the bugs over wintering in our house peaked the reporter’s interest. A year before, the local ABC affiliate was doing a story on Congressman Bartlett running for office and some of the story looked at his effort to get funding for research of the BMSB. The local ABC channel interviewed him, his opponent and us. The last thing my wife said before she left was that the house was off limits and I was not "under any circumstance" allowed to let the reporter in the house. Therefore, they took video of the piles of stinkbugs in the barn.
Apparently, that warning was meant for all eternity, because I was still not suppose to say anything about the house. Now the writer did not get every detail correct in the article, I did not teach Coadee to eat stinkbugs; she just does that on her own and we do not have thousands of stinkbugs crawling on our floor. Anyone that has encountered the bug knows the adults fly and the instars walk. We had adults in the house just like everyone around us. Our house sits in the middle of fifty acres of farmland. Harvesting the soybeans chased the bugs from the field to the closest structures, which in this case, was the barn and the house.
The first sentence in the article started this way “Brian Biggins’ life stinks.” and it went down hill from there or so I am told. After my wife read the article, she was horrified that I had spoken about the house. “Who is going to want to buy any of our jams or jelly’s?” she asked. Never mind the fact that it was made in August when the bugs were outside. "Would you go to a farm like that?” We are an organic farm; of course we are going to have bugs people expect that. She is entitled to her opinion as well as her privacy and I violated that, for which, I am truly sorry.
I told her “Look, this will go the way every other bit of publicity we have had goes,” which is nowhere. We were on the radio in Baltimore for an hour, I got one email, and we have been on local television a couple of times. We received no comment what so ever, not even someone saying they saw us. A local newspaper covered our cooking class three years ago. One person asked if we were the farm in the paper. We have been in the local paper multiple times, we even took out an advertisement, paid two hundred dollars, to run one day (in the food section) and we got one reply. “Let’s face it,” I said, “our track record for getting sales out of our publicity has not exactly been stellar.” Nothing seemed to change her mind to her the damage was done. “You cannot un-ring a bell”.
She is right, you cannot un-ring a bell, but it is not like we are the only ones with bugs in the house, everyone around us faces the same problem. She is getting better about it but I am still no longer the official spokesperson for the farm. I am just hoping she has forgotten the password to Local Harvest, I am sure this piece would not go over so well with her either.
Buy Local: help build community and preserve those who persevere
Posted by Brian
@ 06:38 PM EST
To all organic farmers Michigan State Univeristy has set up a BMSB web site to track testing that is being done at both the farm and scientific levels.
The web site is meant to inform as well as encourage farmers to participate in structured testing. Your help is urgently needed. Please take time to signup and provide input. The address is:
Thanks to all.
Posted by Brian
@ 02:28 PM EDT
We arrived at the Virginia Tech, agricultural center and headed into the building. We signed in, went into the room and saw about one hundred people. We met many of the researchers that we have communicated via email, saw some conventional people like Bob Black from Catoctin Orchards, and met Eric Rice who is an organic orchardist in Western Maryland. The meeting came to order and the head entomologist started out with all the media attention that BMSB was getting and that this was an unprecedented variance in their daily routines. When you think about it unless you are into growing or entomology these people are relatively unknown to the world. The work they do however has greater impact for all of us and they are truly unsung heroes.
I sat in the room feeling like an imposter; here were all these people that have dedicated their lives to understanding and documenting all that "bugs" us. The subject matter is immense and their are specific specialties which makes it even more awe inspiring. We were very fortunate to be part of this event.
Dr. Leskey had said that never before has so much attention been put on a single bug and entomology. She then showed clips from news organizations featuring accounts from cities, counties and finally farms. Then they started to discuss updates from the previous meeting. They were speaking in Latin for the most part but we had read ahead and could track a little. At least we knew when they said Halyomorpha halys we knew they were talking about the BMSB. When they referred to Pentatomidaes, they were talking about all stinkbugs and other similar insects.
Then they started to talk about the spread of the bug and pheromones that were working to attract the BMSB both male and female. This is when my ears started cropping up and I was writing furiously spelling the words phonetically. They talked about spray cycles and infestation patterns within orchards, under study, where the greatest concentrations of the bugs were in the orchard. Each University presented their findings and all pointed to the different types of damage to fruits and crops and a continuing presence of these bugs.
After the updates the farmers started addressing the groups, there were three large conventional orchards representing 200+ acres each and two organic farms, Eric Rice’s and ours. The conventional people were talking of the devastation and of their spray patterns and the different types of chemicals used. It was dismal, one after another talked of the devastation. They spoke of seemingly good-looking apples being put away only to find internal damage when taken out of storage. We lost all of our apples, persimmons and raspberries but being so small the loss was not as great as the others’ were. Each farmer pleaded for the groups help and stressed the importance of getting relief before next growing season.
Then I got up after the three conventional people and looked out at the large room. I thanked Dr. Leskey for the invitation and said, Hi, I am Brian my wife and I own and operate Miolea Organic Farm. Then I blurted out, “We are screwed”, I know it was not appropriate but after hearing what I just heard and knowing that there was no organic method to control them that is how I felt. The audience took the statement in the jest it was meant. There is however truth in jest.. I then went into what we faced, what we did, what we had observed and how we tried to control them. I noted that our cherry tomatoes were untouched and other vegetables that had not been affected. I thanked them and stressed the fact that small organic farmers were going to be the hardest hit first. I also volunteered the farm and said We would be willing to work with anyone including being a sponsor for funding from OREI.
There is nothing like facing your fears and over-coming them. Do not get me wrong, I was sick going to, sick before speaking but was not as sick after speaking. What buoyed me most was meeting these people and hearing what research they are involved in and what is planned. I left the meeting with a strong sense that from this group that it is just a matter of time.
Buy Local: Now more than ever, find a small farm to support.
Posted by Brian
@ 08:54 PM EST
My wife and I met some incredibly talented and gifted people this past week. We attended the regional BMSB workgroup meeting and met the professional people that have dedicated their lives to the pursuit and understanding of insects and the insect world, also known as entomology. The USDA-Agricultural Research Services is coordinating the efforts of the University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech., Rutgers University, University of Oregon and many others, in the fight against the BMSB. We were invited to attend and speak about the hardships and challenges that we faced this past growing season with the bug.
It all started with Congressman Bartlett rounding up his colleagues and writing a letter to the USDA and EPA asking for emergency assistance. As the news played out, we kept hearing stories of how hard the conventional orchards were being hit and how nothing was working on the BMSB. Having lived through the summer, we started to get concerned that “Organics” was never mentioned in any of the news stories; not online, in newsprint or television. In Frederick County, where we live, we have the most organic farms than any other county in the state of Maryland. Congressman Bartlett is our representative.
I wrote his office and asked if he could make sure that organics would be included when the USDA and EPA were doing research on the problem. At the same time, I posted a cry for help on this blog, asking people to write their representatives stating the same. Not soon after, Congressman Bartlett’s office wrote and put me in touch with the lead scientist on the project. I called her number and left a message. I introduced our organic operation and myself and told her about the devastation the bug caused on our crops. I then asked that she please keep organics in mind as she conducted her research. I felt good that I was able to leave that message and that the head researcher would hear it. Do something about, might be a different story, it may or may not be within her power. I at least felt I did my best to give organics a voice.
A couple of days later I received an email from Dr. Leskey (the head USDA researcher) asking if we could arrange for a phone call. We did and I talked to her over the phone. She assured me that organics was in fact part of the discussion and research. She then had her own request, would I come to the next workgroup meeting and address the researchers? I did what I do in any situation were I am not sure, I told her I would think about it and get back to her.
I do not have a problem with public speaking; I have spoken to groups both large and small at farm conferences. We give educational tours around the farm. I am not shy when it comes to speaking about my passion and the ills of industrial farming. This however was a different audience. These were PhD’s from renowned Universities and prominent USDA/EPA research labs. I was intimidated. What could I offer these folks but anecdotal information? These people have spent their adult life in entomology. They are the ones we write to when we reach the end of our knowledge and they are the people who have the answer to our questions. Except for the BMSB, they have answered every other question we have asked.
I talked to my wife and told her all the reasons that it did not make sense for me or both of us to go. The meeting was too far away, we would have to take off work, what information could we bring to the table that they have not already heard. I had a ton of reasons but I never brought up that I was intimidated. I called Dr. Leskey back and explained that we would not be able to attend that we had appreciated the invitation and were comforted by the fact that she did have organics on the radar screen.
At about the same time the USDA announced that the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) had appointed a new member and that member was a local farmer I knew. He is Nick of “Nick’s Organics”. The NOSB is the governing body that approves what can and cannot be used in growing, handling and production of organic consumables. I called to congratulate him. As part of my BMSB campaign I had sent Nick the same email I sent o everyone I knew, imploring all to contact their representatives.
As the conversation was ending, he thanked me for my congratulations and asked if I had any traction or movement on BMSB. I explained to him how I did get to talk to some folks, about how Dr. Leskey invited me to speak but I declined the invitation. I told him the same stuff as I did my wife and Dr. Leskey. Nick however, did not let me off as easy as Dr. Leskey or my wife.
I do consider Nick a mentor even though he is mainly an organic meat person, I look to him for counsel. He has been in organic farming for more than twenty-five years. However, this relationship did take time to develop. When we first called the State to discuss organic certification they gave us Nick's name because he had been organic farming, for years, near our farm.
The discussion got around to what we were going to be getting certified. My wife told them vegetables to start then fruits. Our Department of Agriculture is one of the best government run agencies I have ever dealt with or have read about. They did not try to discourage us, but, they did say what they see is that people start out with organic vegetables and fruits and then turn to animals. They then gave us Nick's name and told us to talk to him. They said he had been around awhile and done what we had done.
We knew of Nick from attending farming conferences and educational seminars. After hearing what the State said, I avoided him as much as possible. I understood what they were trying to say and I see it sometimes in the people that work for us. It is a great thought that you are not harming the environment and you are growing the freshest, safest and tastiest fruits and vegetables. It is also a romantic thought and one that a lot of people have, do good for society, the earth, yourself and your community. You work out in the fresh outdoors under blue skies with nature all around you.
Within the first couple of months after starting work or starting a new season reality sets in and slaps you cross the face. Romantisisim rockets out the window in 100 degree heat and you are left with the facts that this is hard, dirty, sweaty, tiering, exhausting, dangerous, relentless, frustrating, untammed and at the total mercy of mother-nature kinda job.
I knew all of this, I had grown organic tomatoes and peppers for twelve years for ourselves and family. We walked into it with our eyes open and a ten year business plan. If we are not profitable by year eleven then I will have failed and I will have to close up shop and go back to growing for ourselves again.
In my addeled brain my thought was I did not need people to tell me why I should not grow organic fruits and vegetables, I needed to find people who know how to grow organic fruits and vegetables. For the longest time I avoided Nick except for the occasional hellos at different functions. But, then we started buying hairy-vetch seeds and chicken feed from him. I slowly started to see him in a different light, he was supportive, energetic, extremely knowledgeable and raised some really good tasting beef.
As the years past we talked more and for longer periods of time. It was sometimes about esoteric things like the time I told him to cook his beef on a cherry-wood fire or him telling me how to pronounce edamame. Other times it was about the problems we face as small farms. When we read the news of his appointment we were excited for him and called to congratulate him on his selection.
The conversation wound down and he asked me if had any traction on the BMSB issue. I told him about the workgroup and that organics was being considered and I told him of the invitation that I had declined. In Nick's own iniminable style he explained the relative importance that had been bestowed upon me.
He explained that what I had to say and share with these people might be anecdotal but that they had to hear from the people that were on the front lines fighting this bug in order to make a living. The scientists needed another perspective he said, one that I could provide and could translate to all other organic vegetable and fruit operations. Having lost all the corn, tomatoes, peppers, apples, persimmons and raspberries we did this year, I could not refute his advice.
He gave me the name of a local organic orchard owner who he said could also speak to the need for organic research. I wrote the name and number down, thanked Nick and congratulated him once again. I hung up with sort of a sick feeling growing in my stomach. I followed through and wrote the orchardist an email and explained the situation.
In the mean time, I called Dr. Leskey back and asked if both Eric and I could address the audience. Her answer was quick and unequivical, yes it would be appreciated. Weeks later we got the agenda, we were to speak at about 10:20a.m. We also got to see who and what was being presented before and after we were to speak. To say I had beads of sweat would be an understatement.
To be continued.......
Posted by Brian
@ 03:39 PM EST
For those of you south and west of us get ready for an invasion of the Brown Marmarated Stink Bug (BMSB), if it hasn't already been introduced to you. The bug has become incredibly out of control where we are in Maryland. We lost all of our corn (250'X60'), they lowered our tomato yields 90% and now they are invading the home.
We sealed the inside of our windows in late August and any crack we could find inside the house and out. If I may indulge you, when the insulation can says to wear gloves they mean it. It is a different and embarrassing story so I will just keep it to myself. The directions also tell you to wear goggles and some other stuff, which are all important. But, the gloves yeah, you need the gloves.
The stinkbugs are in every nook and cranny under everything that has a flat surface and an edge. We have seen them pilled and packed so deep onto each other that they look like part of the building. You would have to take a second look to realize that what you are seeing is a living caulk of stinkbugs.
They like South-West facing buildings but, because there are so many of them to fit, you will find them all around the building. I read they are attracted to white. What I have noticed is that the greatest concentration of these bugs has been on the southwest sides of the house, barn and milking shed. It was in the middle of September, we were putting the tractor away in the barn mid-afternoon the sun was out but it was cooler than usual. I am driving to the barn and the paint job looks horrible, sometimes when a large group of birds fly over we have found our house or barn have been used for precision target practice by the flock. At first I thought that might be the case again but as the tractor came closer to the barn I could see the specks moving. I knew what it was but I had never seen the amount that I was now looking at. I called every body from what they were doing in order so that they could see this sight.
There had to be thousands of bugs completely covering the back wall of the three-story barn. It was just one of those moments when you have a flash of lucidness and you think “What the @#$% am I doing here?” Nevertheless, it is just a flash so I ignored the unsettling sight and got everybody back to work.
It is the same way with the house, which is white also. I read in our local paper that quoted an EPA scientist as saying in essence if something is not done about this quickly these bugs have the potential to put Integrated Pest Management practices back thirty-years. We lost our corn and tomato crops, local conventional orchards are losing between twenty-five and thirty-percent of their harvest. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Moreover, these bugs are moving. BMSB was first found in Allentown PA., in 1998, they are now all across the United States and they are causing damage and failures like ours. All of the farmers around me are trying things and we are all sharing ideas and results of our own testing but so far, nothing has come from our trials and the authorities are trying to find something for conventional people. As with every problem, we will adjust however or whatever is needed. In the mean time,
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Posted by Brian
@ 09:39 AM EDT
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