Tag Archives: Acres USA

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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Soil fertility, humus, tilth

February 25, 2011

Test soil of gardens, lawns to ensure fertility, balance

In a previous column, we wrote about how one can look at the weeds growing in a field and determine soil deficiencies.

For example, dandelions tell us we have too much soil sedmentation; consider them natural tillers of your field; when they die back, the hollowed out root system is used by earthworms to travel and further break up and fertilize the soil, bringing calcium to the surface. So, far from being “just a weed,” they’re the gardener’s friend. (Thank Charles Walters of Acres USA for this good advice!)

But beyond what our “weed” friends are telling us, it’s a good idea, too, to take a soil sample and have it tested, not only for your organic garden (certified organic growers must test every year), but also for your lawn and flower beds. You might be surprised at what you find (that you’ve been overfertilizing or adding the wrong amendments).

The Mississippi State University Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis.

For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

As an example, while it’s not required, we sample three areas of our little ShooFly Farm because we’re on a hill, and we actually have three different types of soil; at the top of the hill, it’s red clay sandy soil, highly acidic; at the middle, halfway down, it’s loamy and high zinc presumably from previous owners using composted chicken manure as fertilizer; at the bottom, it’s dense clay soil.

Each has its own needs. For example, we’ve been steadily working to build humus and composted material in the top area, to hold moisture and build tilth, and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

In the middle area, we’ve concentrated on building fertility through adding composted horse manure and high nitrogen cover crops.

At the bottom, we’ve just used standard crop rotation along with allowing natural weeds and brush as a “buffer” zone between the highway and our fields.

For your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” of course, it’s a lot simpler. Just take a small trowel or spoon and fill the cardboard box that MSU provides for a soil sample, send it off with your payment, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results.

Reader response: An online reader wrote from Hawaii about starting a backyard CSA (community supported agriculture) plot to share produce with friends and family:

“But alas, I can’t plant a garden. Military housing is strongly opposed to us digging a garden in our backyards. We can’t even compost in housing here.”

I suggested that perhaps there was a community garden somewhere that she could donate time to help tend in exchange for food, and she wrote back that, in fact, she shopped at a local farmer’s market at least once a week and would look into it.

People who live in urban areas might also consider “yard sharing.” That’s where they link up with people who have space to grow but not the inclination.

Yard sharing has grown in popularity nationwide. To find someone in your area, check out: http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/page/about-us.

It’s a free yardsharing service operated by Liz McLellan in Boise, Idaho.

There is good value in getting your hands dirty and thinking about things. Lately, I’ve been employed a good bit in farm work and, consequently, have had lots of time to mull things over.

One of the items that has long simmered just beneath my consciousness is the sorry state of rural America. I remember when I was a boy, small rural places were bustling. Now, they are like ghost towns. I remember local communities thriving, filled with the commerce of farms and farmers who came and shopped. What happened to those people? Those communities?

We can’t just blame it on the lure of cities. For, indeed, the ties that kept rural people rural were broken loose, over the decades from the 1950s, when I was a boy, to before now.

The economic, social, moral and spiritual collapse of rural America may ultimately prove not to be the result of America’s decline but the cause of it.

Let’s reverse this. Let’s renew rural America from the ground up! I think we can do it with just the same kind of initiative and self-reliance that I’ve been writing about here; with backyard farming, micro-farming, growing local food for neighbors, churches, friends, family, and creating markets for our goods.

We lost our roots because we let them go. But roots can grow again, if we plant our feet and try again.

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.

Weeds Whisper Secrets …

February 4, 2011

Weeds whisper soil secrets to organic farmers (and CSAs!)

An online reader wrote from Italy asking what to do about weeds. After discussing various options, I told her that a good book that explains why weeds grow where they do and what to do about them is Weeds: Control Without Poisons by Charles Walters (Acres USA, 1999; $25).

There is a whole movement on this principle: that all creatures grow from the ground up, and their health can be determined from the health of the soil. It’s similar to the Slow Food movement, as a return to healthy basics, but mostly followed by people who label themselves as “grass farmers,” organically raising grass-fed cattle, sheep an goats. (See: http://www.stockmangrassfarmer.net/. Also, for those interested in raising grass-fed beef using this principle and avoiding chemicals of any kind, see the book: Natural Cattle Care by Pat Coleby, Acres USA, $20.)

The Walters book is an eye-opener in that it teaches that the weeds in any field are themselves telling us what’s deficient in the soil. Every weed has a niche for certain soil imbalances where it thrives. When it decays, it actually is returning the missing nutrient to the soil. These facts can be monitored by soil testing each year.

You’ve heard the saying that a “weed” is only a misplaced plant? Moreso, weeds are our allies in returning balance to the earth!

Reader response: I’ve been getting a lot of response from readers near and far about the Jan. 7 article suggesting people consider starting their own backyard micro-farms and selling their produce via a CSA (community supported agriculture):

“I wish to start a CSA for my neighbors and grow organic veggies to share. Any suggestions as to where I can start? I live in north central Louisiana and have 2 acres.”

A couple of suggestions: First, a caution: I’m not sure that just starting out learning by doing is the best way to begin a CSA, per se, unless it is with family and really supportive friends who will forgive you if your crops don’t pan out. Otherwise, folks who pay $400 or more for a season will expect a fair return and may not be so open-minded if plans go awry.

With that in mind, it might be best to consider your first year an experiment and allow for a learning curve (and lots of mistakes). Having neighbors chip in without a fixed pay schedule while you learn the ropes could do that.

Second, you might want to check with people operating CSAs and learn from their experiences, and ask them questions. It could be, if there are any in your area, they are looking to “go in with” others even part time to complete their offerings while you learn.

Third, there are a couple of books you might want to read, first: Eliot Coleman’s classic: The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (Chelsea Green, 1995, $24.95); and, second, though it’s a bit dated, but chock full of practical advice and lessons learned the hard way: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm by Bob and Bonnie Gregson; Acres USA, 2004, $12.)

There are some CSAs in North Mississippi to look into (and they write blogs sharing their experiences):

Doug Davis operates Yokna(patawpha) Bottoms Farm, see: http://yoknabottoms.com/. Or write: 26 County Road 471, Oxford, MS 38655;

Horton Nash and Genevieve Yeakel operate Isis Gardens CSA: http://isisgardens.blog.com/. Or write: 955 Mt. Vernon Rd., Tupelo, MS 38801

For a scientific approach, see the GGSIM CSA test, at The Fireant Farm at Starkville: http://fireantfarm.wordpress.com/

Upcoming:

The Mississippi Urban Forest Council is holding a conference, “Sustainable Choices for Today, Planting for Tomorrow” Wednesday and Thursday at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. For more information, see: http://www.msurbanforest.com/

The Northeast Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association Conference and Trade Show will be held Friday in Verona. For more information: http://msucares.com/counties/chickasaw_9/veg_brochure11.pdf or contact Scott Cagle at (662) 456-4269 or scottc@ext.msstate.edu.

News alert: Last week, the USDA OK’d unrestricted use of genetically modified alfalfa in a stunning decision that threatens organic and non-GMO farmers, food safety and the environment. Lawsuits are in the works, but now, the only recourse consumers have to make informed choices about the food they eat is to press for better labeling to show when GMO is present. For more, see: http://bit.ly/fsH9eD

Five reasons why it matters: http://bit.ly/h0z2J5

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.