In recent decades integrated pest management (IPM) has gone from being essentially an exotic idea about how to address plant, animal, fungal and a range of other pests capable of crippling production, to being a term bandied about in the growing community almost daily. Widely accepted today as the most appropriate response to the problem of pests in agriculture, the opportunities afforded by the IPM approach are often unrealized at the individual farm and at the landscape level, according to experts.

At the farm or ranch level, underuse of IPM stems from the fact that, to many growers, especially owners of smaller farms who are considering implementing IPM, an application of the approach can seem impossibly complex. IPM is seen as something for the specialists that big growers can afford to hire, but is too complicated for average folks with limited resources.

Additionally, opportunities are missed on a community wide or landscape level when individual growers implement IPM in isolation. Coordination of IPM programs between, for example, most of the growers on a particular watershed, could result in significant enhancements to not only the larger ecosystem involved but also to farmers willing to act in concert as well.

IPM: This is not your grandparent’s pest control

Dozens of IPM descriptions exist. In Australia, Queensland’s Department of Agriculture has developed a description encapsulating the diversity. It stated that “The current approach to crop protection is to use a range of options to manage crop pests so that they do not cause economic damage.”

Crop pests can be insects, mites, diseases, weeds or even animals (for example, birds or mice). An IPM strategy aims to reduce the pest population to a minimum using various tools and management options. IPM is also designed to maintain environmental sustainability and economic viability of the production system.

An IPM program must be an integral part of the production system as a whole, evaluating various components of the system and how they might be manipulated to reduce the pest population. IPM could be considered as an integral component of integrated crop management (ICM), reviewing all aspects necessary to grow a crop. These control options could be a combination of cultural, physical, biological and chemical control measures to manage pests and diseases.

In contrast to conventional chemical pest control, IPM programs do not rely on a single, often antagonistic, control method for each pest or group of pests, but on various compatible and environmentally safe techniques.

Dr. Peter B. Goodell, IPM cooperative extension advisor for the University of California’s statewide IPM program, recently discussed IPM in collaboration with his colleague, biological scientist Dr. Marshall Wain Johnson. According to Goodell, “When I talk about IPM, I’m talking about pest management, not pest control, because we’re trying to manage that pest population from reaching damaging levels and therefore reducing the overall production and yield at a particular field. We’re not looking to eradicate. We’re not looking to eliminate; we’re looking to manage and manage to some economic level.”

“One of the keys, or the key, to integrated pest management is the dependence on information,” Goodell added. “It is an information intensive approach to pest management that requires a scientific based knowledge as well as years of experience in a particular area of expertise and discipline.”

In the early years of IPM-based approaches to pests, the need for science-based knowledge and extensive experience was an impediment to implementation, especially on small to mid-level farms. That “speed bump” no longer exists. Land grant universities and their extension programs provide an immense amount of easily assimilated information dealing with nearly any crop in any region of the nation. Accessing that information and utilizing it to create an IPM program is work, but it has been shown to pay off, even on small farms, in reduced operating costs, increased productivity, enhanced market opportunity and improved profitability.

Large-scale approach

For the large-scale farms, nurseries, greenhouse growers and other across the U.S., IPM has become an essential part of everyday business. Specialists are hired, and employees are dedicated to implementing IPM because of its significant potential for cutting costs. A weakness in the national effort to see IPM generally implemented is present because the owners of small- and medium-sized farms truly are often intimidated by the seeming complexity involved in IPM.

In a previous article in Growing, Dr. Ricky Foster, professor and extension entomologist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, noted, “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.”

He added, “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.”

Foster suggested small- to medium-sized growers begin moving toward IPM by asking, “What is the target insect for this application?” Spraying once a week just to meet a schedule can be counterproductive and result in wasted sprayings.

Off-season, Foster and Goodell suggest growers take time to reflect on the previous season; review the field notes from previous seasons and isolate perhaps the top two or three pest problems faced in terms of which pest is present, when the pest seemed most active and other issues that come to mind. Then, a focused search of extension websites can provide information needed to more efficiently and often more cost effectively control the pest.

Goodell also said more farmers ought to consider working in cooperative ventures with other farms in the area. “It can be very difficult for smaller growers to get the economies of scale,” he said. “However, if smaller growers banded together to share the expense of IPM expertise, they might be able to get that economy of scale similar to larger farms.”

Addressing just how small a farm can benefit from implementing IPM, Sarah Pickel, IPM education specialist at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said, “Using IPM on any scale of farm will save growers money and time by allowing them to use small-scale pest control options before problems get out of control. When larger scale pest control actions are necessary, IPM can allow growers to limit pesticide by targeting precise life stages with one or two appropriately timed applications instead of just hoping that a pest will be controlled with multiple applications over a broader time frame. This savings on pesticide expense and application time is worthwhile to any grower, no matter the size of the farm.

“If a grower is overwhelmed by starting to use IPM,” Pickel added, “I’d recommend changing practices for just one pest. After seeing the benefits, growers will be more likely to branch out into a more complete scouting (scouting involves examination of the crop to determine the kind of pest present as well as the extent of any infestation) program. In Pennsylvania, more farms fall into the 1 to 2 acre size category than are in any other size category. That means there are a lot of small farms in operation out there, and IPM could be useful to all of them.”

An issue of concern to professionals responsible for IPM over large areas, is the seeming lack of attention to the larger ecology in the design and implementation of many IPM programs.

“There is an ‘I’ in IPM,” Goodell said. “A lot of people often focus on the basics but overlook the IPM continuum. IPM means considering all things, including the land, air, water, crops, social issues and, especially, maintaining productivity for the farmer who’s trying to grow food or fiber and thus is very site specific.”

IPM provides a suite of tools and approaches that can be tailored to individual fields, crops, pests and management style. An IPM approach that looks only at an individual field or a particular crop without considering the effects of pest management on the larger ecosystem fails to fully exploit the potential of IPM, according to Goodell.

“A lot of people are so busy with the present, they have little time to develop longer term IPM plans that incorporate cultural and biological control elements,” he said.

IPM offers small, mid-sized and large farm operations many advantages capable of significant contributions to the success of the operation. As IPM matures as a discipline, for example, more customers are responding to marketing, stressing the fruit, berry, vegetable or other product has been grown utilizing state-of-the-art science to reduce chemical use. Increasingly, companies are requiring their vendors to demonstrate they are using IPM as a part of their everyday approach.

IPM also offers marketing opportunity for lands not suitable for organic production. As a science-based approach promoted by the scientific community, it has a cachet similar to organic, a favorable aura usable in a farm’s marketing program. In some cases, it can be promoted as being superior to organic. As an example, the organic chemicals approved for use in apple orchards often cannot be used in orchards certified as salmon safe.

Also, there is the fact that IPM can result in larger crops by volume, better crop quality and reduced expenses, as necessary chemicals are utilized for greatest efficiency.

IPM is here to stay and has become the standard for responsible stewardship of the farmland growers use to serve the community.