Although treated as a social or political wedge, insecticides represent an important tool for growers dealing with the hordes of insect predators vigorously pursuing their share of the yearly crop. A major problem for growers is the daunting task of choosing the right insecticide and using it effectively to achieve personal and community-wide economic and social goals.
To make good decisions about insecticide use, growers – especially those managing a small to mid-sized operation without the wherewithal to keep a specialist on staff – must winnow through mountains of information and make dozens of choices regarding the who, what, why, when, where and how of insecticides; the stakes are high as the decisions made will have a direct impact on the economic health, immediate and long term, of the growing operation.
The sheer volume of information a grower must address when considering insecticide use can be intimidating. Yet for growers in the 21st century the old aphorism “Knowledge is power” applies as, perhaps, it never has before. In 2016, growers addressing the issues involved in insecticide use must walk a fine line in a world in which societal perceptions, environmental requirements and regulatory demands sometimes seem to actively conspire against achieving the economic success necessary to the survival of an agricultural enterprise. Razor-thin profit margins require close attention to the economics of insect control, while the potential for regulatory and market sanctions require equally close attention to the mechanics of insecticide use.
One decision-making mechanism that’s been much touted is integrated pest management (IPM), a holistic approach to pest management requiring accumulation of information on an orchard or field level to develop pest control strategies. A full-fledged IPM program requires constant monitoring, ongoing adjustment to treatment protocols in reaction to the results of that monitoring, weighing costs against benefits, minimization of risk to the crop and to the larger environment of the orchard or field, environmental enhancements where possible, and other factors to arrive at a balanced set of actions designed to ultimately optimize the productivity of an agricultural enterprise. In short, a lot of work and attention to detail is required to implement a full-blown IPM approach on a farm.
Though IPM has increasingly become the standard for growers, not everyone is on board. Regarding successful IPM approaches, especially as they pertain to insecticide use, Dr. Ricky Foster, professor and Extension entomologist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, said, “My experience has been that very large farms (corporate type), actually do a much better job in IPM because they have people devoted to that topic. With small or medium-sized farms, the farmer may have lots of duties – planting, harvesting, scouting, spraying, marketing, managing labor, maintaining a payroll, paying bills, etc. With all those responsibilities, you might understand why those growers might just spray on a schedule rather than scouting carefully and spraying only when needed. In addition, there are a lot of risks over which the grower has little or no control, such as weather, markets, prices, etc. Generally speaking, growers will tend to think that calendar spraying may not be the most economical but will eliminate that area of risk. That assumption may not be correct, but I think many growers think it is.”
Despite the difficulties, for a professional grower there are significant economic drivers to consider when a pest control regimen is considered.
First, according to Foster, “Many wholesale brokers have systems in place where suppliers are evaluated on how well they are following IPM and/or sustainable practices. Growers have to meet those criteria for their produce to be acceptable. Some buyers have specific rules prohibiting certain pesticides or pesticide practices.”
Further, “When selling directly to consumers, growers have to understand the desires of their customers. Every customer would prefer to buy produce that had no insecticide used on it but would be absolutely free of insects or their damage. Most consumers are aware of inherent conflict between those two goals and are willing to purchase produce that has received some insecticide applications, although it can help if the grower reassures them that he/she follows IPM principles and only uses insecticides as a final alternative when the potential for damage requires them. Some consumers are unwilling to purchase produce that has had synthetic pesticides applied and those will gravitate toward organic production. The trick for a grower is to know who his/her customers are and choose the path that is most advantageous. The old saying, “The customer is always right,” is true because they can buy their produce somewhere else if you aren’t providing them what they want.”
Careful attention to sustainability can also pay off in direct economic impact; while insecticides are effective when used properly, they are expensive. Estimates might vary but many contend pesticide use in the United States could be reduced by half, or even more, without serious loss of crop quality and quantity.
Addressing the potential for overuse of insecticides and the possible economic impacts of that use, Dr. Foster said, “I don’t know if the number (half) is correct, but farmers certainly could reduce their use of insecticides by a considerable margin if they became more educated about insects and insecticides. For example, a number of years ago we implemented an IPM scouting program on melons and reduced insecticide use by 65 percent. It doesn’t always work out that well, but sometimes the savings are dramatic.”
Read more: Be Careful When Spraying
Foster gave advice to professional growers looking to move toward a more sustainable program of pest management: “One of the best starting points for many growers is to always ask before making a pesticide application, ‘What is the target insect for this application?’ That may sound simplistic, but if a grower sprays his/her farm every Friday because that’s the schedule, they probably aren’t thinking specifically about the target pest. If, for example, it’s a melon grower, they may be thinking that they are spraying for striped cucumber beetles, which they really need to control, but if the pest is between generations, they are wasting a spray.
“Another off-season activity growers can do is to just sit down with their field notes from previous seasons,” said Dr. Foster, who highly recommends this practice, “and list what are the major insect problems they have faced, maybe the top two or three.”
Using the information gathered from an examination of the field notes, Extension websites can be searched for information on how to identify a pest and its impact on a crop, how to prevent damage caused by the pest, how to sample for the pest, and, using basic information about the pest’s biology usually available on Extension sites, determine how many of the insects are too many and how to control the pests when too many are present.
Most Extension bulletins for a pest will go through the entire list so the grower can then implement control strategies for the next season, Dr. Foster said. If, for example, “A melon grower needs to manage striped cucumber beetle because that is the most important pest, it’s not difficult to develop a strategy to deal with it. It does take time and effort, but farmers should be professionals who are always learning how to do their job better.”
Keeping up with the newest techniques, whether for insecticide use or any other aspect of the grower’s trade, requires dedication but, as Foster said, “Farmers don’t become successful just by buying land and equipment. Being a farmer is a full-time job, even when nothing is growing. To be successful, farmers must be continuously upgrading their knowledge of all aspects of their business, including IPM.”
As one example of the many resources growers have available for learning opportunities, Dr. Foster mentioned his book for vegetable growers, “Vegetable Insect Management.” Co-edited with Brian Flood, who works for Del Monte Foods, the book is a deliberate blend of academia and industry, according to Dr. Foster. The authors of the chapters contained in the book were required to “provide readers with practical solutions to their insect problems,” he said.
Another example of the extensive list of resources for growers wanting to fine-tune their knowledge about nearly every aspect of their trade is the book “Midwest Vegetable Production Guide for Commercial Growers, 2016,” available online at https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/midwest-vegetable-guide/Pages/default.aspx.
A collaboration of land-grant universities from seven states, the Midwest guide “provides vegetable production information that is valid in the participating states for the current year. This includes fertility, variety, cultural and pest management recommendations.”
The guide is exhaustive for the states it covers and is illustrative of the kinds of information available to growers throughout the nation from their respective state’s Extension universities. As Foster said, “Virtually every state has Extension specialists who have publications, websites, apps and more that provide information growers need to make IPM decisions. Extensions in most states have a wide variety of workshops and training sessions that growers can attend to upgrade their IPM skills. Finally, Extension specialists and county Extension educators are always available to answer specific questions that growers may have. My point is that if farmers seriously want to upgrade their skills, they can do it. It just takes work.”
As to the future of insecticides, Foster said, “Insecticides are becoming safer for humans and the environment. Many of the older, more toxic, broad spectrum insecticides are being replaced by less toxic alternatives. None of these products are perfect, as demonstrated with the neonicotinoid/pollinator issues we are dealing with currently. One neat innovation that some fruit growers have adopted are smart sprayers that turn on or off depending on whether sensors detect the presence of a tree. This can reduce the total amount of insecticide use by a considerable amount, especially when trees are small.”
Insecticides are here to stay. The grower who learns and adjusts to changes in insecticide technology will optimize the economic benefits in crop quality and quantity that the proper use of insecticides can provide.
Read more: Harness the Strength of Your Fungicides