Controlling pests is not about finding the newest, latest, safest intervention strategy. I believe it’s totally dependent on healthy, mineralized soil.
Yes, there are times and places where environmental stresses are present. I’m not naïve enough to think there is never a need for intervention. Our family farm is organic, which means that intervention is usually not an option with our crops or livestock. Instead, we focus on doing everything possible to prevent potential problems before they start. How and why we do that is the focus of this article.
On our farm with our system and in our climate (southwest Wisconsin), I can honestly say that I have never seen the need for a fungicide, insecticide or other pest-fighting material. Now, herbicides or weed controls, those are a different story. They are always challenges.
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I’ve noted that when the climate is right for a pest, when some fields are affected, not all fields in the area are infested, damaged or destroyed. For example, aphids or leafhoppers are found in one field but they don’t attack all fields. Why? A farmer’s action can change the situation. One incident I know of that illustrates this was an alfalfa field that clearly showed insect damage over nearly the entire field except for one small area. What was the difference? On that spot the farmer had accidentally dumped out a pile of calcium, dramatically improving plant health.
Adding calcium doesn’t mean just giving the soil a good pH, but also providing the plants with sufficient plant soluble calcium. The soil has a certain ability to dish out the minerals plants need. What we supplement can be above and beyond the soil’s ability to provide the needed nutrient; it must be in an accessible form, i.e. the plant must be able to take it up and utilize it as and when needed. In my experience, having a soluble calcium source (that doesn’t mean lime), some boron and sulfur goes a long way toward having healthy plants.
Questions To Ask
Management is another important factor affecting pest control. What are you managing for, diseases and insects or crops that do poorly? This may not be intentional, but it may be the result of a management style. A lack of plant diversity, hard and tight ground, excess nitrogen, an imbalance of minerals and/or a shortage of key minerals, including trace elements, all negatively influence crop health.
We know that insects or diseases are not prevalent on all farms or under all management systems, but unfortunately there isn’t much research on this. Why not? Because research is rarely based on looking at a whole system. It’s usually based on looking at one product or a single variable.
We do have enough knowledge to get lots of things working right, to make soils more resilient, leading to healthier, more nutritious crops. If you were to set up a plan, could you prevent or dramatically reduce crop problems?
Can plants protect themselves? Can we? What about our livestock? Of course, we all can—we have an immune system. Plants build protective compounds. What are essential oils, herbal medicine, plant extracts? Is the plant building these compounds to protect humans or to protect itself? We are fortunate enough to benefit from this. Then ask, are all plant-protective compounds from similar plants the same? The fact is they do vary, as does the immune system in livestock or humans. If you want to consume plants for health benefits, how and under what conditions they are grown is critical.
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So what would you do to get the plant stress-free and growing in a biological, rich, mineral-balanced soil? We do have enough knowledge to give us many clues; mineral sufficiency levels and ratios have been well studied. Over 20 minerals are needed for crop production, and I’m sure many more exist but have yet to be discovered. So what do you do with this knowledge? How do you implement it to improve your farm or garden?
It would take far more than just these few pages to spell out a complete program—more like a whole book. My second book, Advancing Biological Farming, explains it in easy-to-understand language.
Simple Practices To Follow
Encourage Plant Diversity: Plants feed soil life, and soil life prefers a smorgasbord to the same old thing over and over again. Continuously feeding the soil life the same thing (i.e., a single crop) results in an imbalance among these tiny creatures. Favoring the growth of some organisms that prefer that type of plant can mean you are actually favoring pests. That’s why it’s important to try as many different plant groups as will fit in your growing area and farming system. The more diverse the plants, the more diverse the soil life, and therefore less opportunity for any one disease or insect population to take over. Remember, soil life likes to be fed and have something growing (live roots) all the time, or at least as much of the time as we possibly can.
At what stage of maturity would you put those plants (food for soil organisms) into the ground? This is critical for the crops you are growing—choosing which cover crops to grow and learning how to manage them. Compost and livestock manures can also be used, but when and how much and what type are questions you need to address because, again, you are affecting soil organisms. So now we have plant diversity and feeding soil life as a part of our healthy plants program. What’s next?
Improve Soil Tilth: What about air and water in the soil? The soil needs to breathe—be aerobic not anaerobic. (This is another whole book in itself.) Basically, there are jobs the farmer needs to do, and one of them is physically preparing the soil to grow a crop. Plowing is at one end of the tillage spectrum and no-till is at the other. Usually somewhere in the middle is where most farmers operate. Why would you till if you didn’t need to? Your job is to manage the decay of residues and control soil air and water. Don’t till too often, too much or too little, but do the job. You want loose, crumbly soils that look like chocolate cake.
Add Needed Minerals: I have already mentioned the importance of calcium, sulfur and boron. I’ve also said that what the plant takes in (and in what ratio) is important. Start with a complete soil test, including secondary and trace minerals, and then do soil corrections. Add what the test shows is missing or in short supply, but it’s equally important that if you have enough of a nutrient, don’t add more. Excesses can be as harmful to plant health as deficiencies! Crop fertilizers supply plants with nutrients above and beyond what is available from the soil. They are a balance of many minerals. Carefully select the sources.
I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but unfortunately I can’t give each of you a specific answer because there is no one answer. Different parts of the country, different climates, different crops, different soils, different management styles—they all change the equation.
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Despite this, we do have common ground. The use of soluble calcium, sulfur and boron is one (although there are a very few areas of the country with excess boron). Sulfur, for example, is needed to make complete proteins that make plants healthier and consequently less susceptible to insects and diseases. Plants need adequate levels of trace minerals and in the proper ratios—this has been fairly well researched. Eliminating stress from the plant and then finding and dealing with the constraints/limiting factors affecting your farm or garden help a plant to be healthy and defend itself.
Which one do you think gives plants the highest level of protection—using pesticides or using soil nutrition? It’s like giving low doses of antibiotics in livestock or vaccines with nutrition. Which one builds the immune system?
Too Much Help
One other point I want to emphasize is the issue of excesses. Gardens especially are prone to this problem as it’s so easy to overdo fertilizer on a garden plot. Farmers, on the other hand, have huge acreages to cover and a budget to stick with that minimizes over-applications.
Excess potassium is one element that can get many growers in trouble, possibly due to the most commonly used source—potassium chloride (KCl), which is a salt, and too much chloride can be a problem. Some other common excesses are potassium in relation to magnesium and calcium, excess nitrogen, and excess nitrogen in proportion to sulfur levels. Both the excess potassium, especially the high-salt version, and excess nitrogen are major problems, in part because they interfere with calcium uptake.
Now, you can certainly have excesses of calcium and magnesium in the soil, which may stress the plant only because those excesses mean that something else is then in short supply. High levels of these two nutrients in the plant are not usually a problem as plants rarely take up that excess. Remember, it’s the amount of the elements in a plant and the ratios that are important.
The sources of what you add to a soil and what they are mixed with do make a difference as well. I like my carbon-based, buffered and balanced fertilizer blends. I want the minerals hooked to something (the carbon) before I add them to the soil.
My final question is, what would I use if an insect or disease problem did occur? I’m no expert here, but intervention with the safest natural product available would be my answer. Everything has side effects, and solving one problem can create a whole new one.
It’s not that I wouldn’t intervene, but it would be the last resort. I would go back, check my program to see if the problem or problems could be prevented (most of them can). I would do the same for my livestock and my own family, too.
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Start with knowledge. Get a good complete soil test. Find your limiting factors. Use inputs to fix or balance shortages, preferring natural materials. Kelp, fish meal and certain rare earth mineral deposits can be beneficial, as they provide nutrients above and beyond our present knowledge and research level. Do these things and you’ve got a good head start against pests (and diseases).
When dealing with pests, I like to remember this quote credited to the Greek poet Lithica: “All the pests that out of earth arise, the earth itself the antidote supplies.”
For More About Gary Zimmer
To learn more about Gary Zimmer and his holistic approach to farming, read Jeremiah Tucker’s article on page 34 of TNP #193. Gary’s books about managing the soil and growing crops using what he calls “biological” farming methods are must-reads for any gardener or farmer who uses an organic, holistic approach. The Biological Farmer by Gary Zimmer and Advancing Biological Farming by Gary Zimmer and his daughter, Leilani Zimmer-Durand, are available from Amazon.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.