A Bug is A Bug is A Bug

by Gary Mount

The same can be said about disease as well, though not as well off the tongue. As a farmer growing fruit and vegetables in central New Jersey, I have to pay a lot of attention to bugs and disease. We are close to eastern ports, where many insects entered the country and have a moist and humid climate, just right for disease. This is my 37th year as a farmer and I face the same problems – with some new ones added.

I sometimes get asked why it is such a problem now. After all, humans have been growing fruit and vegetables for a long time. Part of the answer is in today’s food supply system. Simplistically put, everyone eats but only a few produce food. I think it is about 2% of the population in the US. Farmers grow lots of one crop in one place. Growing problems are concentrated. Diseases and insects are not limited by a lack of a host plant to attack – there are plenty. And farmers grow the crops to sell. The product has to be attractive and wholesome – not infested by insects or disease – in order to be saleable. In contrast, humans in the past grew a lot of their own food. Not only was there not a lot of one crop in one place but standards were not as high. Not many fruits and vegetables were eaten raw and bad spots were simply cut out before cooking. By contrast, I had a customer last year inform me that she threw out any ear of corn with a worm in the tip. Really! And in the case of apples and pears in earlier times, most was consumed in a liquid state – that is hard cider or Perry. Blemishes or insect bites were not a problem. If a pie was to be baked, it just meant sorting through to find the best apples – the rest could go to cider.

O.K., I have established that we cause our own problems. But what to do about it? In the middle of the 1900s, farmers began to use pesticides. They were able to produce better products and had less waste. Insects and disease were reduced. Great! But not completely great. Some of the materials applied to the plants were fine but some were not. There was not enough information available about the materials pesticides – and about the insects and disease. Some of the pesticides lasted too long. Some caused harm to animals and humans. Some killed predacious insects as well as the fruit or vegetable harming ones. There was a long way to go.

My father was a farmer in the 20s through 60s. He farmed during the time of great change as far as insect and disease control. I am continually amazed at how little was known about insects, disease and pesticides back then. If something worked, it was used. Today’s farmers have so much more information available. Cooperative Extension provides research and advice –  in New Jersey it is from Rutgers University. The State and federal government agencies provide oversight – as in all things that is not always 100% good, but then, what is?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM), is a technique that takes the understanding of the disease and insect problems, their interaction with the pesticides or other control methods available and develops bio-rational approaches to producing a farm product. It helps me produce crops with the minimum of outside inputs. IPM  comes up with novel techniques to produce wholesome products. My favorite is the use of pheromones.

Insects that spend part of their lives as moths find each other by the use of pheromones, which are identifying scent like substances produced by the female moth to attract male moths. Think of pheromones as perfume. By making a synthetic pheromone and putting it inside a sticky trap, we are able to attract male moths. We can know when they are active and when they might attack our crop. The Codling Moth is the infamous worm in the apple. Apple growers have known for a long time that the codling moth is active in the month of June, but never exactly when. My father had to spray 5 or 6 weekly sprays to be sure of protection. With the information that we now get from the use of pheromones, we can protect our apples from codling moth with just one spray! To an apple grower that is really great. But pheromones are now being used in another way, called mating disruption or the confusion technique. The names are descriptive – the technique is brilliant. We put a twist tie, like on a bread wrapper that contains the pheromone on each tree in the orchard. Male moths are attracted in great numbers because of the perfume. But the trick is that when they get there, so much of the scent is present, it is impossible for them to find the females. Thus no mating, no egg laying by the females and no worms in the apples! No sprays for codling moth are needed!

The great increase in the amount of information available to a farmer is especially a good thing for me in that I am now growing many crops here at Terhune Orchards as certified organic. Growing crops without chemical inputs and using an understanding of how things grow and interact with the environment around them requires a detailed understanding of the relationships involved. I like organic growing because I feel that if a crop can be grown and marketed profitably without chemical inputs, why not? This year I am growing a block of apples organically – but not for the first time. This is my third attempt; the times before were in other orchards – in 1978 and 1985. The first two times were failures. The apples were unappealing and were not salable. The trouble? You can guess my answer which is that not enough information was available. As far as organic growing is concerned, a complete understanding of disease, insect and plant interactions is needed. Right now, we are smarter than we were, but there is still a long ways to go. I am getting help from Rutgers Extension and the IPM program and I think (knock on wood) that my organic apple growing will be more successful than it was in 1978 and 1985. Check with me in the fall to find out.

Another good thing about the increased information available concerns the stink bug.This particular insect, the brown marmorated stink bug, is a newcomer to the United States. It has been here about 8 years and has spread to almost all states. For a fruit and vegetable grower, it is devastating. It is very mobile and can easily go from one crop to another. It damages crops in all of its life stages which means that if it is present, it is eating. We have few insect predators here that attack it—maybe controlling only about 5%. (In Southeast Asia, where it came from, predators control about 65%). And most of the pesticides that we have do not kill it. Last year, stink bugs moved into my orchards right at the end of harvest- maybe 3 or 4 days before the last apples were picked.On those later varieties, we had 55% damage from stink bug. There is a tremendous effort underway to gain an understanding of this insect. But there is still a long ways to go.