Leader in Organic Bug Control a Southern Superhero

I met one of the best kept secrets in organic agriculture during my recent travels.

If you live in the South, and grow organically, you know that it can be a challenge. Lots of people, in fact, believe that you can’t grow organic “where the ground never freezes and the bugs never die,” as my friend Nellie Neal calls the South.

Those of us who struggle to be “deep organic” and not use chemicals of any kind to control insects and diseases often feel a bit lonely, in fact. We have only our hard-won experience of losing some crops, saving others, to go by – without any firm scientific basis for our farm practices.

But that may be about to end, somewhat. There is an extension service entomologist in Thomaston, Ala., who is conducting research into deterring the most common insect pests from organic farms and gardens using natural methods.

Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D. – or “Dr. A” as locals call him – has been studying “trap crop” plants that can lure harmful insects from organic vegetable crops. So far, his success has been astounding.

Bug Doctor - Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a "superhero" to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Bug Doctor – Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a “superhero” to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

State coordinator for the Southern Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program, Dr. A is an Alabama Cooperative Extension Service specialist with Auburn University. I met him while presenting a roundtable discussion on “Gifts and Challenges of Rural Southern Communities” Sept. 13 for the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston. I was there on behalf of NCAT – the National Center for Appropriate Technology and it’s ATTRA program, the Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. (See NCAT.org or @NCAT_org)

Turns out, Dr. A. has a demonstration farm at the Heritage Center and is conducting his research there. I eagerly toured his demonstration plots after the roundtable discussions were over.

Sheephishly, I have to admit, I had actually read Dr. A’s work prior to coming to the Heritage Center. (See his article “Trap Cropping for Flea Beetle & Aphid Management in the July 2013 edition of ACRES USA.)

To be honest, I had no idea he was conducting his experiments in Alabama, or the South, for that matter. Maybe I just assumed he was “out there” somewhere, like the Rodale people in Pennsylvania, or the Land Institute in Kansas, or like our NCAT folks in Butte, MT. Not the South. I mean, really, who would have thought there would be a worldclass organic expert in a tiny town in Alabama?

To me, the most interesting aspect of his work so far has been on creating trap crops. Trap crops, as most organic growers know, are crops set aside to lure “bad” insects away from your valuable produce. (We use pollinator plants to lure “beneficial insects” to our would-be cash crops.)

Unfortunately, most organic growers also know that often our cash crops often become trap crops by default. Many of our “trap crops” become that way because insects attack them.  Every organic gardener or farmer has stories to tell about how one’s intended cash crop became so infested he or she kept it in hopes of keeping bugs there rather than attacking the other plants. Intended trap crops often don’t seem to work or work well enough. That’s where the science is lacking.

Recently, farmers and gardeners have been having problems with a bug called “leaffooted bugs.” If you grow tomatoes, you probably have seen them. They look like a squash bug but have odd shaped flat protruberances on their legs. After a leaffooted bug attack, tomatoes become mottled; with black circular spots. You’ve probably seen attacked tomatoes at farmers markets; most farmers don’t even know what hit them, until it’s too late.

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well.  This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well. This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that forage sorghum (NK300) will lure leaffooted bugs from tomato plants, if planted prior to tomatoes so that the panicle is produced before tomato fruition. The bugs don’t even see the tomatoes, they are so intent on the sorghum panicle, he says.

While walking by a row of his sorghum, he pointed to several of the bugs in the panicles, including a pair mating. “They love it!” he said. “This is their bedroom.”

Asked about whether sunflowers don’t do as well to attract leaffooted bugs (which I had found in my own fields), he said that sunflowers have a limited amount of time in which they are in flower to attract the bug. Sorghum stays attractive longer; though, he said, one could plant both, timed to allow an even longer season.

Bingo! If you’re looking at a long season, plant both to succeed each! Moreover, one can plant other trap crops for other bugs and other crops that can also mix and match with these.

For example, he also says that the sunflower/sorghum strategy has worked on stink bugs; but he is still conducting experiments. He suggests using bug vaccums.

Other findings from Dr. A –

— “Blue Hubbard” Squash planted as a perimeter can attract pepper maggots, cucumber beetles, squash vine borers and squash bugs with a 60 percent to 90 percent success rate.

— Clemson spineless okra can be used as trap crop to protect tomatoes and bell peppers from aphids, flea beetles and grasshoppers.

Dr. A certainly has his work cut out for him, but what he has discovered so far is simply phenomenal and has the potential to give Southern organics a huge boost.

Someone needs to start sewing a superhero suit with a big “Dr. A” on it. This organic crusader is treading where few in the academic and scientific community have dared to go — and finding weaknesses among the mightiest of the South’s insect pests.

For upcoming Food and Farm Forums conducted by the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, see: http://www.asanonline.org/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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One response to “Leader in Organic Bug Control a Southern Superhero

  1. Fascinating – thank you for sharing in time for planning for the 2014 gardening season.

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