The Transition to Biocontrol and IPM: Part I

The Tech Side

Note to new growers: If you’re starting a garden or new agricultural or horticultural business from scratch, a transition is not something you’ll have to concern yourself with. You may, therefore, think there is nothing in this section you’ll probably really need. And you’re probably right. However, I feel it is probably a good idea you read it anyway. There is knowledge and understanding to be offered herein that may increase your level of insight. I’m amazed, as an avid reader of all sorts of stuff, what benefit I’ve gleaned from material I never thought I’d have an interest in or need of, yet forced myself to push through it anyway. I’m glad I have.

You’ve got your heart and soul ready for change; you’ve got your head screwed on right; and you now know why you want to make this change to biocontrol and IPM — you’ve found your undying love and commitment for this thing. Great. Now comes the transition. Assuming, of course, you’ve been practicing some sort of conventional pest control up until this point. Before I get into the finer points of this transition, though, I’d like to make some things clear.

Pesticide License?

Often I’m asked by biocontrol/IPM practitioners, new and old, if they should consider letting their chemical applicators’ permits expire. An emphatic no is always my answer (though if you’re getting married you should get rid of your little black book). Pest control is a war of sorts. In my opinion you should keep your options open. Why practice disarmament if you don’t have to? Certification requires education, so that’s a good thing. Of course you’ll have to show restraint so you don’t make uncalculated midnight forays into the pesticide locker. As an example, many military groups in the world posses nuclear weapons technology (some even have these weapons at the ready but I won’t name names), but it doesn’t mean this technology or these weapons should ever be used. Restraint, too, is a good thing. To spot-treat problem areas is also a good reason to keep your options up to date — but this will discussed in greater detail later on this website. After all, and I share these feeling a lot, if a person, a grower, tries to stay as green as possible in their growing practices, they are doing some good. And some good adds up and is infinitely better than no good. Just because, for business survival reasons, an individual needs to use a little chemical technology to get through a low moment of localized high pest pressure, it doesn’t turn him or her into some sort of demon. This is especially true if the chemical used is as soft as possible given the circumstances, the applicator uses it responsibly, and it is used when, how and where, exactly, it needs to be used. No more, no less. (As I wrote before, one big problem with pesticide usage is not the usage itself but the abuse of such).

Organic Certification?

Another question I’m often asked is whether or not organic certification is a good idea. Sure, organic certification is great. But I do not recommend it unless the person who asks this has a really good reason for doing so-and, in my eyes, a marketing reason is the only good reason-and their commitment to these Green Methods is true. In other words you should really have a strong organic goods market at your disposal and be well versed in ways to cope without standby chemicals. If you don’t and aren’t, why bother? An uncertified grower can grow just as organically as their certified counterparts-without the hassle, expense and binding obligation. So unless you can sell premium goods which are “certified organic” to a customer base willing to pay for the power of that “O” word, again, why bother? Your options will be wide open, and you can still be as green as you want. Unless, of course, you cannot show restraint. Then, perhaps, maybe you’ll have to have a binding obligation to keep you on the straight and narrow. But then, again, if that’s who you are, you probably shouldn’t be doing this at all. You might want to turn around and go back to the section discussing mind-set as you’re obviously a reactive sort of grower who’s just not ready for this (it doesn’t make you a bad person, though).

The Finer Points

Back to the finer points of transition. You’ll need to have a clean operation before taking on the biocontrol part of the Green Methods. Meanwhile IPM might just be the ticket. This is because you’ll have to clean things up, and you’ll need to do this in a way which will allow you to seamlessly proceed to the next step: biocontrol. You’ll want to start the integrated part of IPM right away. To do this you’ll want to choose tactics which will allow a cleanup without closing the door on biocontrol agents for great periods of time. If pesticides are the way to do this for you, then choose those which are either compatible with the bugs you plan on introducing, or those which have a short residual period — this may include insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils as well as many other products. (The residual period is the amount of time the substance remains toxic to the biocontrol agents of choice. Other techniques may include emptying the structure and treating it to periods of extreme heating and freezing for as long as several weeks. Or, you may simply choose one or more of several manual options such as hand picking, trapping, etc. All these techniques will be discussed in greater detail in the next page. If it is an option, wait until the crop is cleared from the structure, thoroughly clean things up [steam- or heat-sterilize the structure, if possible], and incorporate biocontrols and other IPM methods upon the germination or introduction of a new crop. Beware: If you’re bringing in plant material from outside sources, be sure the material you’re bringing in has been treated in a way which is compatible with the critters you’re planning to use. If your operation consists of several independent structures, perhaps it is best to learn the Green Methods one structure at a time. Usually this will facilitate a smoother transition and the entire process can be less stressful.

You’re Not Alone

One thing to remember: you’re not alone. I can’t say for sure there are support groups hosting meetings every Tuesday night in your area. (“Hi my name is John P. and I spray pesticides?”) And transition probably has more than twelve steps, anyway. Nor can I say there are chat rooms on the internet devoted to transition, though the latter is very likely. But I can emphatically state you are not alone. If you attend any growers’ meetings, garden club teas, education-based meetings and seminars-including those offering pesticide applicators’ recertification credits — trade events, university cooperative extension get-togethers, etc., you’ll find people doing it just as you are. Some will be ahead of you in the learning curve-some will be behind. But talk to them all. Share notes and experiences. There’s a reason many chemical companies tout their sprays as “compatible with beneficials.” It is because biocontrol and IPM are real; a driving force in horticulture and agriculture. A force to be reckoned with. And many people are doing this.

Lastly, don’t forget one of your most important allies: your biocontrol distributor. The biocontrol distributor has a huge advantage over many other avenues of assistance. The distributor is directly involved with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grower-individuals with different experiences and results. A good distributor will be asking a lot of questions, taking a lot of notes, and helping a lot of neophytes make the best of it. You may think your biocontrol distributor is in it only for the money (which is partly true because money helps businesses succeed and is fundamental to life on earth as we know it) and you will, therefore, be unable to get straight, unbiased help. But a good distributor will help with every ounce of integrity they can muster. You see, if you are successful in this challenging endeavor, they may keep you as a paying customer for life because you will be a successful grower in need of their products. If they don’t do a good enough job helping you out (or stupidly try to take advantage of your ignorance on the subject), you may fail and go back to chemical pesticides or worse suffer a business collapse. In either case, they’ve lost you and will have to begin anew with someone else. And that can be even more challenging to them than the Green Methods were to you initially.

And Moving Along

Now you’re ready to make a transition. You’re starting in a environment which will not hamper the effectiveness of your good bugs and you’re as clean as a whistle. You’ve read up and brushed up, found yourself a good distributor and are just itching to get started. Don’t for moment, though, get complacent, for the rough stuff follows. Don’t expect miracles and don’t expect the road to success with the Green Methods to be smooth. I’m not saying it’s going to be hell on earth, but there’s still a learning curve before you’ve got ninety-eight percent of it down pat. A hundred percent? Well, I don’t know if that’s possible with anything.

Now let’s get into more details about some of the information in this section. It’s where I’ll start to trim the meat from the bone, so to speak. Let’s go to the second part of transitioning.