Strategies to manage pests on organic farms

By Gary Sliworsky
Ag rep, Emo

There are many ways to manage pests on organic farms.
The overall strategy always should be to try to manage your cropping system to avoid the insects, diseases, weeds, etc. Easier said than done, but here are some strategies (each pest will have their own weakness).
You will have competing interests and need to decide which is more important. For example, adjusting the planting time to be later may exclude some insects or weeds but may result in slightly lower yields–assuming there were no pests.
You also have to have the capacity to do all of the important things that need doing in a timely manner.
Crop rotation should be your number-one strategy. Growing a high frequency of the same crop or same crop family will lead to more problems.
Rotating from cabbage to another crucifer species, such as broccoli, does not help. Rotating grass type plants and broadleaves is ideal, but not always practical.
Growing a wide diversity of crops will give you more options for crop rotation. Use cover crops whenever possible.
Resistant varieties work well for many pests, especially diseases. Varieties can lose their resistance over time, though, so keep watching for newer varieties with improved resistance.
Know your problem diseases and which resistance traits that you need in a good variety.
Crop health is very important. Anything you can do to keep the crop healthier will help the plant to resist and tolerate pests, such as 
•optimum nutrition–not excessive and not deficient;
•good soil conditions–good structure, no compaction, active soil OM;
•no moisture stress–neither too much or too little;
•maintain correct plant population; and
•use clean seed and healthy transplants.
Beneficial organisms are very important partners. These can be beneficial soil organisms (i.e., critters and fungi), beneficial insects that prey on other insects or weeds, beneficial fungi that suppress plant diseases, or fungi that become a disease to insect pests and weeds.
Many of our cropping practices have an impact on these. Some beneficials can be added to the field/crop, but these will not be useful if your field conditions are not conducive to them surviving.
Encourage beneficial plants in boundary areas to host predator insects and pollinators.
Sanitation also is critical to prevent the spread from one field to another, and from one season to another. Clean bins and storages after use, and clean equipment from one field to another.
Maintain field margins to prevent spread of diseases and weeds.
Mechanical equipment, vacuums, flaming, row covers, and hand harvesting all can work but may have high cost. Some strategies work well, but must be suited to the crop situation and scale of production.
Pest management starts with knowing your crop and pests, and when there is a problem. What is the threshold for action? What were your problems last year?
What worked? What did not?
Eliminating the pest is not a realistic goal but reducing it to tolerable levels is. Knowing how to prevent the problem is key.
No one single strategy will be a success. A successful pest management program uses “many little hammers.”

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