Lessons from the Field: On the Importance of Local Food Movements, Dirt, Bugs, and Balance
I learned some things on Tuesday. Not that I don’t usually learn something on the job, but Tuesday’s lessons stuck with me. I was out in Aylmer doing our produce pickups and stopped by Gideon Stoll’s farm for some of that wonderful early green kale we have been enjoying. Now, Gideon and family are preparing to move to Maine, and while they usually grow a variety of tomatoes and cucumbers in their greenhouse, this year they did kale so they could get an early harvest in. With most things ready for the move and no crops to get in the ground, as they would no longer be on the farm, Gideon had ample time to chat. With a larger than life red beard tinged with grey, he leaned against our truck parked in the shade of an ample maple tree and schooled me for fifteen minutes or so.
The first lesson, was the reason for the move. Gideon’s son “wants to milk cows”. Starting a dairy operation in Ontario is close to impossible without a lot of money. In Maine, however, raw milk sales are legal right from the farm. Without entering into that debate, what it meant for Gideon was the possibility of starting a small dairy, which because of Maine’s strong local food movement, could survive through direct sales to consumers. It will certainly be tough to leave the farm that he was born on, that was passed on by his father, but he’s willing to move for his son. So lesson one, strong local food movements matter. Consumer or eater, or however we want to be termed, the more we ask for local organic food, the stronger message it sends to farmers.
Gideon had found a farm, close by his brother’s in Maine. It was a nice property with a warm microclimate because of its location. However, it had been farmed conventionally, and he was not looking forward to the transition to organic. I asked him if that was because of the paperwork involved, needing to keep detailed records of farm materials used and crops planted. He said, “No, it’s the soil. Healthy soil takes time to build. After years of abuse, the soil is very poor.” Lesson two: organic farmers are often dirt farmers. In “conventional” farming, you determine what inputs are required to make your crop grow and keep pests at bay, then you add them them (pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides). In organic agriculture, you build healthy soil to do that work for you, and that takes time.
Somehow, the conversation turned to aphids and beneficials (shorthand for beneficial insects, the kinds that keep pest populations in check). Aphids are incredible. They give birth to live offspring, which when conditions are favourable these are entirely female and they reproduce parthenogentetically. Reproduction without fertilization, and that’s the word of the day. “So you can imagine a family of aphids, each producing ten females, which are born ready to eat and practically pregnant,” Gideon tells me. “A hot spot can get out of control really quickly. It’s amazing. You have to be watching all the time.” Lesson three: organic farmers are biologists, ecologists and entomologists.
So, how do you keep a population of pests under control? That’s where the beneficials come in. You set up the conditions for attracting beneficial insects, or you order them in! Beneficial insect populations shipped right to your rural route mailbox. Open, and release. Welcome to modern organic farming. Of course, in the time it takes to order and ship, your pest problem could have gone from zero to infestation. So, what’s best is actually to have a balanced population of pests and beneficials to begin with. If you wipe out all the pests, then the beneficial insects will have nothing to feed on and they’ll leave, which in turn leaves your fields vulnerable should pests reappear. So, lesson four, it’s all about balance. You need some level of negative pests to maintain a healthy population of positive beneficial insects.