Pest Control with Sustainability in Mind
Whether you are cultivating a small, backyard garden at home or you’re managing several acres on a large-scale commercial agricultural operation, you’re probably familiar with the sinking feeling in your stomach when you notice the first signs of a pest invasion of your crops. Naturally, we are often inclined to take the “nuclear” approach of covering everything in harsh pesticides as soon as we recognize the presence of pests, but it is important to ask yourself if opting for synthetic chemical inputs at the sign of any insect is a sustainable practice. As more research in the fields of pest management and sustainability is being conducted, conservation environmentalists and entomologists are raising awareness around the negative impact that current pest control methods may have on both beneficial species and the long-term outlook of agriculture as a whole.
What is Integrated Pest Management?
The concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is also sometimes referred to as Integrated Pest Control (IPC) isn’t exactly a new concept. Since the 1970’s, conservationists and environmental scientists have promoted and lobbied for commercial agriculture operators to implement IPM programs into their farms. The definition of IPM, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.”  In other words, instead of waging outright war on pests, farmers are encouraged to take a more strategic and sustainable approach to better control pests while mitigating collateral damage to the surrounding environment and nearby native species, humans included.
The Six Fundamentals of Integrated Pest Management
While there are countless variations of IPM programs that have proven successful, the style that best fits you largely depends on variables like the type of crop(s) you’re cultivating, location, climate, and the type of pests you’re trying to control. For instance, an almond farmer would likely have a very different IPM program in place compared to an apple farmer. That said, all IPM programs maintain six fundamentals that must be in place regardless of the final program style that you choose to implement.
- Establishing an Acceptable Pest Level – Most farmers recognize that complete eradication of pests is an unattainable goal, but this doesn’t stop many from attempting. This typically results in operators using excessive amounts of harsh chemicals like pesticides. Unfortunately, these attempts are nearly always futile efforts that ultimately result in not only increased costs for the farmer, but also negatively impact the environment due to excess chemical runoff and unintended collateral damage to non-threatening and beneficial species, like pollinators. The first principle of IPM calls for farmers to establish an action threshold for pests. This means that a certain pest pressure is allowed to go untreated. Once this pest presence has exceeded this threshold, then operators can begin implementing control measures like pesticides. Not only does this help prevent excess runoff of chemicals, but it also — depending on your input of choice — slows the rate at which a species of pest can become genetically resistant to certain control methods.
- 2. In-House Cultural Prevention Methods – It is easy to find yourself tempted to cultivate a crop in an area that doesn’t have optimal growing conditions for that specific variety. The second fundamental of IPM is that this should always be avoided as a first line of defense against bacteria, mold, and fungi. Additionally, proper sanitary habits like clearing out diseased plants and sanitizing your field equipment to mitigate the spread of contagious bacteria and fungi also fall into this principle. By incorporating this practice into a growing operation, farmers will likely find that they utilize significantly less fungicides throughout the growing season.
- Pest Pressure Monitoring – Monitoring for pests is critical for sustainable and calculated pest management. It may seem like a commonsense fundamental, but for large-scale commercial growers, constantly monitoring and inspecting for the presence of pests across several acres is a task that isn’t exactly quick and easy — until now. Thanks to advances in technology, ag-tech companies like FarmSense™ have made real-time and automated pest monitoring a reality. Devices like their FlightSensor™ give farmers the ability to remotely monitor pest pressure across their entire operation. No more going from trap to trap in the field to inspect for pests and even better, a reduced need for excessive preventative pesticide applications just in case the pests are present but haven’t been spotted yet.
- Physical Control Systems – While the need for inputs like pesticides will likely never be eliminated completely, IPM programs recognize that many pest populations can be reduced by simply removing their sources of food and shelter. A great example of this can be found if we look at how almond farmers deal with the ever-destructive navel orangeworm. This insect, along with other almond-targeting pests, frequently seek out leftover almonds after the harvest. These mummy nuts, as they’re referred to by almond cultivators, are highly desirable food and habitat sources for pests like the navel orangeworm. Most, if not all almond growers spend a great deal of time and resources at the end of the season physically removing the remnant almonds from their field. This practice pays dividends during the subsequent growing seasons and is one that remains input-free and sustainable.
- Helping Nature Help You – Considering research suggests that only around 5% of insects actually pose a threat to crops, it doesn’t seem sensible to try to wipe out the remaining 95% in the process of managing pests. In fact, there are large populations of insects that are natural predators of the exact pests that many farmers struggle with. The fifth fundamental of IPM calls for farmers to incorporate biological or natural controls. This is accomplished by promoting population growth of beneficial insects that feed on pests. Additionally, biological insecticides utilize microorganisms like nematodes instead of harsh or synthetic chemicals.
- Calculated Pesticide Use – As mentioned, synthetic pesticides are a necessary evil of agriculture, but the aspect that is often overlooked, and the sixth principle of IPM, is that there are responsible and irresponsible methods in which they can be used. Farmers should take the time to ensure they’re making the most out of their pesticide use by making sure their application equipment is properly calibrated and that their chosen pesticide is being used at an appropriate time as some pesticides are only effective during specific periods of a pest’s life.
Incorporating Integrated Pest Management into Your Farm
Oftentimes, initiatives like IPM may seem burdensome, complex, or cost-prohibitive to implement into your cultivation practices, but this is far from the truth. Sure, in an ideal situation, a farmer could seamlessly and effortlessly incorporate a complete IPM solution at the snap of a finger, but as with many things in the world of agriculture, IPM can be successfully implemented in steps.
If you would like more information on the best IPM program for your farm, we recommend reaching out to your local agricultural extension office. Additionally, contact FarmSense to discuss implementing their award winning, real-time pest monitoring system into your agricultural operation, which will set you on your way to an informed and sustainable future for many growing seasons to come.