One of the most common questions our farm is asked is how we manage pests. Rainshadow is certified organic which not only means we have a responsibility to uphold certain farming techniques set by the USDA, but we also find it in our heart space to farm in a way that is regenerative for the earth, our personal wellness, and generations to come.
Pest management is a complete and utter reality in the world of organic farming. Avoiding any chemical sprays or pesticides of any kind is truly amazing for our world and our wellness, but it does increase the chance of pests that can be detrimental to our crops. What exactly is a pest? It can be a weed, an insect, or an animal; pretty much anything that will directly or indirectly minimize your crops yield.
At Rainshadow we’ve seen it all… aphids, Colorado potato beetles, cabbage moths, hornworms, an uncountable number of various weeds, deer, mice and more. Regardless, each season we’ve still managed to feed our community happy, healthy, nutrient-dense crops. But how do we achieve this despite the persistence of pests?
The primary method of managing our land is through an integrated pest management system. This means that our farm uses ecosystem based strategies to manage the possibility of detrimental pests. These ecosystem strategies stem from an acute awareness of the systems of the land on our farm. Each piece of our farm is interdependent on another part of the farm. The water, the soil, the plants, and the animals are all interlaced and connected to each other in one way or another. Recognizing the systems that inherently interact allows us to integrate pest management practices that regenerate our farm.
The first and foremost way we manage the possibility of detrimental pests on our farm is through taking preliminary preventative measures. The more we can act in advance to avoid the possibility of any pest becoming problematic to our crops, the better. All of our preventative measures result from a keen knowledge of our land and our crops. Our farm is in the high desert of Oregon. This means our climate is dry and hot and is conducive to certain pests, certain times of year. We also grow a variety of different crops. Some crops suffer from certain pests more than others. Awareness of what pests to expect based on the climate and crops we grow helps us to prepare for they types of pests we will encounter on the farm.
One of the best ways to prevent persistent pest issues is through fostering healthy crops. The stronger and healthier our plants, the more resistant to pests they will be. What are some measures Rainshadow takes on our farm to cultivate healthy crops?
One way is through the practice of crop rotation. We switch the location of each crop on the farm after each clear harvest. On our farm we grow 5 acres of purple viking potatoes each year. Our potatoes are planted into our 25 acre field in the springtime. It is recommended that you only plant potatoes on the same land every 5 years. Each year we move our potato crop through the field so they are only planted in the same spot every 5 years. This helps us mitigate any problems the potato might have with pests. Potatoes are prone to skin diseases and Colorado Potato Beetles. Because we rotate them through our big field, any type of pest that may have been lingering in the soil where the potatoes we planted the previous year will die off and be less of an issue for our plants each year.
Our rotation of potato plants dictates where the rest of our plants will go. We plant a variety of row crops, corn, beans, wheat, and cover crops in our 25 acre field as well. Each year these crops are planted in a different location to support soil health, nutrient retention, and manage pests.
In addition to crop rotation, we also interplant some crops to support each other. These “companion crops” reduce the amount of pests attracted to certain crops. For instance, we plant carrots in between our onions to reduce the chance of onion worms. We also plant sweet alyssum in our rows of brassicas to attract beneficial insects to eat some of our pests. Ladybugs and praying mantises are regarded with much honor and value at our farm!
Another way we cultivate healthy plants is through food and water. The crops we grow are living beings. In order to survive and thrive they need to be watered and fed. We systematically water all of our crops through an overhead wheel line or through drip irrigation. We monitor our crops to ensure they have enough water each day to stay perky and strong.
We also feed our crops through added soil nutrients. We apply compost and manure based organic fertilizers to our soils before planting our crops. The nutrients in these applications become readily available to the plants through the season as the soil microbiota breaks them down. We also grow cover crops which are tilled into the soil before our crops are planted. This “green manure” provides plants with nutrients they can readily use. While the crops are in the ground, we fertilize them with composted fish and kelp. These concentrates are injected into our wheel lines and are sprayed over our crops when we water. These nutrients percolate into the soil allowing the crops to uptake them to stay strong and healthy.
Strong, healthy plants tend to be more resistant to pests than plants lacking some sort of critical component. Our integrated pest management system tends to rely heavily on preventative measures, mitigating any potential detrimental problems. But, unfortunately our preventative system doesn’t completely cancel out all pests from the farm. What happens when we see that pests have become a problem for a particular crop?
In all honesty, we smash them. With our hands. Much of our pest management comes from mechanical practices. If we see a Colorado Potato Beetle or an Earwig, we smash them on site. Our farmers spend lots of time with their hands in the soil, interacting with our crops. When a pest is noticed, we take immediate action to eradicate the pest. If we find a plant in a row of crops that has been immensely damaged, we take that particular plant out of the row. Most of the time we feed the pest-ridden plant to our chickens who happily devour said pest. When we see a mouse, we set traps and when we have problems with deer, we entrust our farm dogs to keep them away. These mechanical solutions are the most beneficial for the land, soil, and plant health.
Applying preventative measures and using mechanical practices helps us organically manage the majority of the lingering pest problems. We rarely spray our crops with any additional pest management support. We have sprayed organic substances VERY minimally to reduce some of our more major pest problems. This season, for example, we had an incredible amount of cabbage moths feasting on our brassicas. Enough to leave immense holes impacting the quality of our produce. Our application of BT, a naturally occurring soil bacteria which harms the cabbage moths, was used to help support the pest problem. When we choose to spray something, it is required that it is OMRI certified and organic. We also only spray the amendment in the most minimal way possible, just until we see that it is impacting the pest.
At Rainshadow we incredibly value efforts to keep our food strong and healthy. Ultimately it is something that will be entering our bodies and nourishing us. By producing food that is raised organically and systematically, we can really work towards changing the way we farms manage pests.