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Sustainability; Strength from within

Posted by Adekunle Adesanya | February 14, 2017

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

‘Sustainability’ is one word that is on the lips of numerous people with different and diverse concerns. Environmentalists want sustainable ecosystems with sustainable energy production to sustain our planet. Agriculturalists want sustainable food production systems and methods that do not deplete the earth of its resources. Health practitioners want a sustainable health care system that is affordable and maintainable over generations. One peculiarity that cuts across all these is that regardless of the system of concern, getting the optimal use of its components without reliance or intrusion by external forces is the best way of being sustainable, i.e., ‘strength is from within’. Little wonder, that WSU is renowned for its  Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR), which has been investing in students to actively participate in sustainable solutions to complex agricultural problems.

As I looked through the program of the Tilth Conference, I was primarily drawn to seminars and workshops that promoted teaching and encouraged conference participants to adopt a more sustainable approach to tackling critical problems in their farming systems. My entomology and crop protection background also helped inform my choices. Within the limit of space in this blog, I will give a synopsis of three seminars that promoted a sustainable way of dealing with some critical problems. These are hedgerow agroecology for cropping systems and beneficial insects on vegetable crops.

Eric Lee Mäder from the Xerces Society presented the seminar on hedgerow agroecology. The Xerces Society is a non-profit organization known for invertebrate conservation which advocates for: protection of endangered species, aquatic conservation, pesticide policy and regulation, pollination and agricultural diversity, and conservation. The early part of Eric’s seminar was about introducing the concept of hedgerows to the very diverse audience. A hedgerow as defined by Wikipedia, refers to a line of closely spaced plants, trees or shrubs planted and maintained to form a barrier around the perimeter of an area such as lawn, homes, farms etc. Hedgerows typically require minimal attention after establishment in terms of irrigation and supplemental nutrients, especially when native plant species are used.  Eric Lee Mäder really encouraged farmers and home owners in the audience to use native plant species as hedgerows because they are well adapted to the local climate and will result in the best benefit. The history of hedgerows date back to pre-Roman times (~2000 years ago). In North America, hedgerows are famous for their use as barriers for valued properties. This seminar focused on convincing and training farmers that hedgerows can serve beneficial functions in agroecosystems by acting as a source of secondary income beside the main cash crop(s). They also aid in recruiting and serving as refuge for beneficial arthropods such as bees, predators and parasitoids. These beneficial arthropods will in turn help in increasing crop yield and also suppress pest pressure. Reference was made to tomato cultivation in California, where the use of native perennial hedgerows increased the population of beneficial insects and parasitism of stink bug pests.  Hedgerows also help maintain soil moisture, nutrients, prevent flooding and pollution. The big take home lesson is that if you are thinking about sustainability in terms of optimizing the components of your farming system, using hedgerows is a win-win strategy.

Brown marmorated sting bug. Photo: Oregon State University via Flickr cc.

The second seminar was presented by Carmen Blabaugh from the Department of Entomology, WSU. This talk focused on managing pests and beneficial insects on vegetable crops. Typically, vegetable farmers, especially organic growers, have restricted options for managing pests on their farms. Hence it is important to proffer innovative means of enhancing natural/biological pest control. The early part of the presentation, introduced new and emerging pests especially in the Pacific Northwest. These include  spotted wing drosophila, brown marmorated stink bug and flea beetles. The audience members were taught how to identify these pests using simple morphological characters. Non-chemical pest control alternatives such as trap crops, floating row covers, and long distance rotation were also discussed. A new mobile app: IPM PNW handbook was also introduced, this tool can be used to identify pests by their images and know what control strategies to adopt.  Carmen also explained how to scout farms or gardens for pests and beneficial insects. The concluding part of this seminar was about identifying beneficial arthropods that can help suppress pest populations, such as predators like lady beetles, lace wings, ground beetles, tiger beetles, predatory bugs (big eyed bugs, damsel bugs), and parasitoid wasps (braconids and ichneumons). At the end of her presentation, most of the audience was excited about the possibility of using good bugs to fight bad bugs.

I listened to other similar presentations like the use of cover crops to increase farm outputs and reduce problems (such weeds, soil fertility, and erosion) during my stay at Tilth 2016 Conference at the Wenatchee Convention Center. I am  convinced that the best way to approach a problem in an agricultural system is a sustainable approach.