Connell organic farmer using 'beetle banks'
Organic farmer Brad Bailie is a believer in bugs.
Organic farmer Brad Bailie is a believer in bugs.
Strips of blooming plants in a maze of colors - from blue bachelor buttons to white yarrow - dot his 600-acre farm north of Connell. They border fields of potatoes, onions, shallots, primitive heritage wheat varieties spelt and einkorn, and camelina.
In each strip, insects, from wasps to flies and lady bugs, search for plant-damaging insects or larvae to eat.
Next to one strip is a long patch with green timothy and orchard grass and fescue jutting out from tufts of dead grass - a "beetle bank" that provides year-round protection for ground beetles that dine on other insects and weed seeds.
Bailie is among a handful of row crop and vegetable farmers in Washington and a small number in Oregon who have created habitat for beetle banks, which originated in England and have been widely used in New Zealand.
While the practice is not widespread in this country, researchers say beetle banks show promise as another tool in the growing sustainable farming movement to control crop-damaging bug pests and weeds through integrated pest management.
Integrated pest management can include ecological and biological controls, such as the use of so-called beneficial insects like ground beetles, wasps, lacewings, parasitoid tachinid flies and damsel bugs.
Tree fruit farmers have tapped biological controls for years: Researchers in the 1960s discovered a predatory mite that was effective in controlling mites, said Vince Jones, professor and entomologist at Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.
There is expanding interest today among row crop and vegetable farmers, particularly organic growers, in using natural methods and minimizing use of costly pesticides, say plant scientists and entomologists in the Northwest.
Nationwide, the amount of certified organic cropland acreage grew from 850,173 acres in 1997 to 1.72 million by 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Organic growers are looking to enhance the biodiversity of their farms, and many are looking for cost-saving and effective ways to do that, said Gwendolyn Ellen, manager of the Farmscaping for Beneficials program at Oregon State University.
Beneficial insects, including beetle banks, are "where we are heading as organic becomes the new conventional, and it's where we have to go. It is what the public is demanding," said David Muehleisen, a board member of the Tilth Producers of Washington and an organic farmer.
Beetle banks, essentially berms of soil anchored by the roots of grasses, protect beetles from plows and other farm equipment and provide shelter to survive the winter. They are designed to mimic hedgerows, said Alec McErlich, an agronomist from New Zealand who introduced the concept to Bailie.
From the banks, the beetles can venture out into adjoining fields to feed.
The beetles will eat some weed seeds, said Rick Boydston, an agronomist with the USDA's Vegetable and Forage Crop Research Unit in Prosser who's involved with research on weed control through use of beneficial insects.
But scientists don't yet know specifics about beetle behavior and their exact diet. So scattered last week in Bailie's fields, at varying distances from the beetle bank, were plastic cups marked by yellow flags placed by Terry Miller, an entomologist with Aggrobiotic Ecological Consulting of Moscow.
Miller, who has worked with Bailie since he began organic farming eight years ago, had 120 of these pitfall traps. He baited each with different seeds or insects, from aphids to mustard seed.
"We're measuring how far some got out and what they're feeding on," Miller said.
Bailie, a WSU crop sciences grad, said he can't quantify yet how effective the beetle bank and other beneficial insects have been on the land that's been in his family since 1915.
"I do know I have not had any serious pest outbreaks," he said.
A drawback of beetle banks and creating and preserving habitat for other beneficial insects, however, is that it takes acreage out of crop production. Beetles also can take several years to colonize a bank, Ellen said.
"You also have to understand a lot about insect life cycles to deal with beneficials," Bailie said. "I think any habitat you create on your farm is a positive thing, though."
Farmers also must be aggressive about weed control in the beneficial insect habitat.
And Bailie still must cope with some pests that may require a pesticide application to kill. With his dogs Shadow and Desi trailing him, he walked early last week to a field planted with potatoes and parted some leaves.
Out fell several Colorado potato beetles - the most economically damaging pest to potatoes in many areas of the U.S., according to the USDA's Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas program.
"I'm hesitant to spray because no matter what you spray you are going to kill some beneficials," Bailie said.
Pesticide costs also add up, another reason some farmers are looking harder at integrated pest management methods, said Doug Walsh, Washington state integrated pest management coordinator at WSU's Irrigated Ag Research and Extension Center in Prosser.
Applying a pesticide through a center-pivot irrigation line to kill potato beetles in a conventional field, for example, can run about $30 an acre or up to $70 an acre if done by tractor, Walsh said.
Some pests also have developed resistance to some pesticides, while beneficial insects have less tolerance, Miller said.
"Brad's spraying costs are tens of thousands of dollars less than his neighbors'," Miller said. "But it takes a commitment to do what Brad is doing. He is taking risks because he is trying to do new things.
"He's not relying on chemicals to do the job. He's relying on (biological controls) to do the job," Miller added.
Coming from a conventional farming background, Bailie warmed to organic methods in 2000-01 while working in the highlands of Guatemala volunteering for a nonprofit group, Agros Foundation.
"When I thought about the way I was doing things back home on the farm, sustainable (farming) wasn't even in the vocabulary," Bailie wrote in an e-mail. "It's not like I didn't care about the environment and was using chemicals every chance I got, but I definitely wasn't consciously looking for other alternatives to the conventional tools used in modern agricultural production.
"When a person leaves their comfort zone and experiences a completely different reality, there is a real chance for change," he wrote.
Near the end of his time in Guatemala, he organized a tour for farmers to highlight sustainable practices that his group was trying to promote.
He carries that commitment to this day, and on June 23 will play host to a short course and tour of his farm entitled "Biodiversity Working for Farmers" that's supported by OSU's Western Region Function Agro-Biodiversity Work Group. To register for the tour and course, contact Gwendolyn Ellen at 541-737-6272.
"I'm definitely not one of the big fish (in agriculture), but I have developed a passion for what I'm doing," Bailie said.
Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com