Monday, December 15, 2014

“Farming with Native Beneficial Insects” Means Solving for Pattern

A necessary guide for anyone who farms, gardens, or who wants to learn more about ecology-based land management


Saying no to pink slime solutions

Our culture is awash in pink slime solutions. If you’ve seen "Food, Inc.," you’ll recognize this as“solving” the problem of E. coli in ground beef by concocting an ammonia-containing additive (pink slime) and then building large factories to incorporate it into the beef before it goes to the consumer. Other examples abound. Want to transport people efficiently while lowering emissions and congestion? Let’s build new roads and develop futuristic driverless cars rather than retrofitting to create multi-modal systems with good public transit. Want to “solve” climate change? Some foolish, hubristic people propose geoengineering, or spewing more pollutants into the air, instead of doing all the not-very-high-tech things we already should and could be doing at scale.

Thus does Rube Goldberg’s ghost haunt our culture. Pink slime solutions try to use technology to address problems caused by technological or industrial “solutions” to other problems, instead of taking a fresh look at what is actually needed in the first place, rethinking possibilities, and solving with systems thinking, ecological knowledge, and current technology. Instead of more industrialization, the proven, low-tech method of removing cattle from feed lots and letting them graze could take care of the E. coli problem. Of course, additional new knowledge can augment these systems-oriented solutions, which often require tracing a path back to where the technological fork in the road occurred and changing to an ecosystem-based approach. For example, recently developed managed-grazing practices can help regenerate the land as well as support healthy livestock.

 Given our cultural context, it’s entirely predictable that the agroindustrial complex would push ever more baroque combinations of GMOs and pesticides (a term inclusive of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) to solve the very real problems of insect pests and opportunistic plants (aka weeds).  Luckily, however, though still a minority, there are farmers, land managers, gardeners, and scientists who are traveling in the opposite direction—rather than adding new technological fixes, they are studying and learning from how nature itself works out these problems and then developing ways to encourage these natural processes on their land. Many of the methods are as old as agriculture itself, some have been developed in the last hundred years, yet there’s so much to learn that ample research opportunities exist for scientists in a wide range of fields. And there is moral agency, as well as science, at work. An ethical stance that humans should function as citizens of the biotic community, that farmers (and, really, all of us) should be, in Wendell Berry’s phrase,
“solving for [the] pattern” of ecological health, is informed by a worldview radically different from that which proposes we should “fix” nature, improve it, or remake it according to our needs. 

Saying yes to working with ecological systems
For these reasons, the Xerces Society’s newest book, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions" (Storey Publishing, 2014), a companion to their essential "Attracting Native Pollinators" (which I reviewed here), is an inspiring, useful handbook. Like its predecessor, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" contains sections on why beneficial insects—those that spend at least part of their life cycles preying on pests—are important, relevant research, the types of habitats useful to them, lists of native plants, and a gallery of insects—who they are and what pests they go after.

Many of the same biodiversity-increasing practices that benefit pollinators also benefit beneficial insects, as the opening section makes clear in its explanation of what beneficials are and how they help control pests. But beneficials have been neglected. While bees are cute, fuzzy little creatures and butterflies are simply beautiful, beneficials are a motley crew of beetles, bugs, wasps and arachnids, many of whom (especially their super-predaceous larva) might inspire a yuck! reaction if looked at live and up close. Darwin even once used parasitoid wasps as an example of why the world didn’t seem to him designed by a beneficent God.  

However, this group also includes old childhood friends such as ladybugs, whose larva feast on aphids, and lightning bugs, whose larva eat slugs and other soft-bodied pests. Watching the fireflies from my back porch summer nights I’ve always loved to see the multitudes that emerge from my garden at dusk. Little did I know that my messy, native-plant centered garden, with its leaf litter and small rock and brush piles, provides a perfect nursery for firefly larva, as well as plenty of nectar, pollen and resting places for the adults.

A book for farmers and gardeners
Because the book is aimed at farmers, it offers very clear, practical instructions for improving and managing beneficial habitat on large tracts of land. Recommendations include use of native plants, hedgerows, insectary strips, cover crops, and buffers, and one of my favorites, beetle banks. These last, an idea imported from the UK, are long, low hillocks made with a plow and sown with native bunch grasses. They form habitat for multiple species of beetles that eat pests such as aphids, slugs, caterpillars, and rootworms. Some even eat weed seeds. Reading this made me want to try things on a much larger scale than my own garden affords, but this section also includes adaptations for the backyard—for example small-scale cover crops and beetle bumps—described so engagingly that any gardener would want to try them at home.  As I read, I began thinking as well about public parks and institutional campuses. Providing habitat in these areas could help reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity in large swaths of the country.

This book takes a reasonable, evenhanded tone. Though the goal is to help land managers reduce the use of pesticides, and the authors, rightfully, have nothing good to say about neonicotinoids, there is no shrill preaching. The demonstration of results-oriented practices on actual farms seems well calibrated to appeal to many a person who, even if using pesticides now, would like to minimize or stop their use but perhaps isn’t sure how to begin doing so. For this reason, there’s a chapter on Integrated Pest Management, which, though not pesticide free, seeks to minimize pesticide use by paying close attention to conditions in the field, making use of farming practices such as row covers, crop rotation, beneficial insect favoring land use practices such as buffer strips and beetle banks, and only using pesticides as a last resort. 

Significant work is being done in sustainable, regenerative farming that puts it at the forefront of the field of agronomy. The case studies, reports from farms in widely separated parts of the country, are among the most appealing parts of the book; farmers and scientists describe what they have done and how it has improved their farming. The news is not complete, however: themes of wanting to find out more, of incomplete knowledge, and the need for more experimentation run throughout the book. Instead of trying to use technology to keep doing things the same old way, these people are making a new path forward; here is a record of old/new knowledge being discovered in real time, a record of farmers, scientists, and others finding practical ways to work with nature. 

One can imagine the need for an updated and revised version of this book as more farmers and agronomists try new methods and publish the results. Spin-off books with a more in-depth regional focus—as though each regional case study, plant list and so on were made into its own book—would also be useful, as would guide's specifically for urban gardeners. Based on my own experience, I would certainly want to enlarge the plant lists for my part of the Midwest, and would want to know more about how farmers in this region are utilizing these methods and what modifications they’ve made for their own situations. And if only more of our universities would get seriously involved in studying and developing and publishing region-based sustainable farming methods to help farmers find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all, land-wrecking, industrial-ag model.

It’s exciting to think of the growers who are experimenting with these techniques, exciting to think of the farms that are growing biodiversity as well as crops. You don’t have to be an expert or become an entomologist, but it’s important to learn about the other species with which one shares a piece of land. And for anyone, thinking about the role beneficial insects play in the landscape is one more door into ecosystem thinking. Paying attention to pollinators’ needs by planting native flowers and grasses helps beneficial insects, and vice versa—and birds. Working at replenishing the soil, by growing cover crops and adding compost, winds up helping the insects while also helping replenish ground water supplies while adding fertility. Everything is so connected that no matter where you start, as you go on, the virtuous feedback loops and proper complexity will develop that are the hallmark of healthy land inhabited by humans who are deeply, ethically invested in solving for pattern.