Researchers Test New Pest Control Strategies for Organic Agriculture

Researchers Test New Pest Control Strategies for Organic Agriculture

For a farmer to get organic certification for their produce | Learn more on Commonshare |, they must adhere to an important set of standards mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In particular, the farmer must grow the agricultural produce in question without the use of synthetic pesticides, synthetic herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.
There are a variety of alternatives, but the practical reality is that solving pest problems can be more difficult if one forgoes the popular, conventional farming solution of simply dousing them in deadly chemicals.
This is precisely why the alternative being developed by Iowa State University (ISU) researchers is so exciting: it uses physical barriers made of nylon mesh fabric to physically isolate plants from pests. The researchers received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the purpose of carrying out their work.
The Iowa State researchers are focusing much of their efforts on some particularly nasty pests, notably cucumber beetles and squash bugs. These insects are highly destructive of organic crops of melons, squash, and cucumbers – a plant group collectively known as cucurbits.
There are organic pesticides available to combat these pests and protect the cucurbits they target, but they are less effective than the synthetic, non-organic alternatives.
Instead of using chemicals, the researchers decided to try another approach: physically isolating the plants from the pests. They created nylon mesh fabric barriers, called mesotunnels, which are suspended on hoops placed about 42 inches above the ground.
This strategy is an adaptation of the low tunnel approach, which uses the same kinds of materials suspended about 18 inches over the crops.
The problem with low tunnels is that they do not allow adequate space for insects to pollinate the crops. Farmers who use low tunnels remove them when it is time for pollination, leaving their crops vulnerable.
With mesotunnels, there is adequate flying space to allow for successful pollination within each mesotunnel structure. Each individual mesotunnel covers three rows of crops for a length of 200 feet, ample room to introduce boxes of bumblebees to carry out the necessary work of pollination.
The ability to introduce hives of commercially available bumblebees means that farmers who use this approach will be able to keep their crops protected during pollination. Unlike the low tunnel structures, mesotunnels placed over rows of flowering cucurbits are large enough to serve as adequate habitat for bumblebees, permitting them to fly around and pollinate the crops.
The researchers are also trying biocontrol measures for weeds to work along with the mesotunnels, including laying down crop debris and seeding species like clover and rye which can serve as a kind of living mulch.
Innovative methods such as mesotunnels may well prove to be the future of organic agriculture, as researchers discover more ways to solve problems in farming without the use of harmful chemicals.

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