Organic Ways to Fight Crop Pests

March 3, 2021
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There are many types of organic solutions for crop pests control. Start with observation and then the least environmentally intrusive solutionYou may find you have been doing it the more cost and labor-intensive way all along. Let’s look at some easier ways to make your farm more profitable. 

Learned the hard way… 

Every spring, I used to find aphids on my pepper plants. I would get out the expensive organic insecticide and spray them all downthe aphids all died.  One spring morning, walking my field, I spotted aphids but had other errands to do first, so I told myself I’d take care of them when I got home. I brought out the spray, and, lo and behold, my pepper plants were covered with ladybugs. They were chowing down on those aphids. I never sprayed my peppers again, even though I saw a few aphids because I saw a lot more ladybugs in my fields than ever before.  In all my years of growing, I’ve learned at least two things about insect pests: 

  1. Almost every pest has a predator. 
  2. If my crops are healthy, I have far less insect damage. 

Those may seem obvious, but how many farmers go out there and attempt to eradicate every single “bug” in their fields.  I used to. Do you? 

Do You Have Crop pests? 

If you’re walking your fields and start seeing holes chewed in leaves or even an insect, do you immediately get out the pesticides and take care of the problem?  Do you even have a problem in the first place? The solution may be a farming maintenance issue. Some insects are attracted to healthy plants, some to unhealthy, but no matter what“…a healthy plant is more likely to survive an insect attack than an unhealthy plant,” according to Phil Nixon at the University of Illinois Extension.  

The first question you have to ask yourself is: are you maintaining healthy soil so your plants can reach their maximum health potential? If you are using a lot of fertilizers and pesticides, then your crops will probably have a harder time overcoming pest problems. Are you planting monocrops? If you are two things are happening: insects are finding a large buffet table making more pesticides necessary, and the microbial community in the soil is limited to those that support that particular crop. Diverse crops and crop rotations create biodiversity in your soil. Healthy soil is your first recourse to pest problems.

There are steps to take to keep your farm profitable and insect damage under control as you change your soil management practices to improve soil healthIt’s always a good idea to get a soil test to find out exactly what’s happening in the top 6 inches of your soil, where your plant roots get their nutrients and where microbial partners hang out. 

4 Steps to Reduce Insect Pressure to a Reasonable Level 

  1. Figure out what the insect is. That may seem like an unnecessary step.  Aren’t all insects bad? NO! In every field there are insects that are trying to decimate your crops and there are predators who eat more than their body weight in those “bad bugs.”  Before you destroy an insect, figure out if its helping or hindering your farm.
  2. Find out all you can about the insect’s life cycle.  It’s hard to get rid of a hard-bodied insect like a grasshopper or a Japanese beetle. But if you do a little research you can find out at what life stage they are the most vulnerable. That’s when any pest control efforts will be the most effective.   
  3. Decide if you need to take action…or if the damage is going to be within tolerable limits. If you decide to actconsider all your options. Insecticides work but are the most detrimental to the “good bugs, especially pollinators like honeybeesAnd eventually, anything you spray on the plants will make it into the soil, killing off certain bacteria or fungi that create balance in your soil. 
  4. Keep watch for those pests in the future. Pests are never totally eradicated.  And even if they were it would mean that predators would have nothing to eat. Nature is a balancing act between pests and prey, both necessary. 

Organic Solutions for Crop Pests  

There are many solutions to pest problems in your crops. This is a shortlist of solutions. There have been many books written on the topic, and there are many homemade concoctions that work well.   

Companion Planting 

This is one of the most cost-effective and easiest solutions in the long term for control of insect pests.  You can either plant within the crop row or dedicate strips (the most effective) to these plants. Companion plants provide habitat to beneficial insects that are predators to crop pests that you may have on your cash crops. 

Companion planting also helps attract pollinators to increase your crop productivity. Bumblebees, honeybees, and even flies are all beneficial as pollinators. Detailed information can be found on many websites.

Here are a few of my favorites: most insects (and deer and rodents) don’t like the smell of onions so planting perennial onions or even letting wild onions around a field or throughout the field is a wonderful deterrent, plant daikon radishes throughout your fields – the texture and smell of the leaves deter many insects, mice, and deer, it also acts as a cover crop, breaks up clay soil, and the long taproot brings minerals up from the subsoil. Almost all herbs are a deterrent to deer, and many have oils or aromas that are disliked by insects. 

Once this is in place you have free labor from beneficial insects, deterrents for many large crop pests, and cover crops to retain topsoil. 

Trap Crops 

The other way to avoid insects on your cash crops is to plant what are called “trap crops.” Trap crops are planted prior to your cash crop, are usually of the same family, but for some reason, insects prefer the trap crop and will devour it before touching your cash crop. I have used this method and have found that eggplant is preferred by insects that attack the Solanum family including peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes.   

Trap Crops may appear to be a higher cost, but they make a big difference in productivity. And trap crops may even end up becoming a secondary revenue source because wherever there are pests there are predators. If your trap plants are growing in healthy soil, they will be able to survive the crop pests until the predators find them. 

Beneficial Insects  

This is also called Integrated Pest Management and is often associated with Companion Planting. Beneficial insects attack and feed on insect pests. Some of the better-known beneficials are ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantis, and parasitic wasps, to name a few. 

For beneficials to remain on your property you have to create habitat (the companion planting strips) and allow some of their prey to remain. In other words, don’t kill off all the “bad bugs” or the “good bugs” will fly away to find their next meal.

There are companies that specialize in rearing beneficial insects for all types of insect issues. Google “beneficial insects,” and you will find numerous companies.  

Natural Pesticides for Crop Pests

These are pesticides and fungicides that are made from plant materials, minerals, or tree oilsThey are a large group of pesticides that work in many different ways to control crop pest populations 

BT – this is the shortened version of Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil. There are many different strains of Bacillus, each targeted to a specific insect larvaBacillus toxins are activated when the target insect eats it. This pesticide is usually sprayed on the foliage and, if pests are still active, will have to be sprayed again after a rain. If your soil is healthy, you will have naturally occurring Bacillus bacteria that will take care of insect larvae that are native to your soil.  The fact that you have insect issues is a good indicator that you need to check the microbial activity in your soil with a lab test. 

Diatomaceous Earth  this isn’t a chemical. It is powder made up of fossilized diatoms, which are algae. It has sharp edges (to an insect, it won’t hurt you or your pets), and when the powder comes in contact with insects those sharp edges cut their bodies and the insects die of dehydration. It is best used when the weather is dry. It will kill Japanese beetles, cutworms, flies, ticks, crickets, slugs, and many other species. Use caution with Diatomaceous Earth because it will also kill beneficial insects.      

Neem Oil – comes from the seeds of the Asian Neem tree. It works by inhibiting the growth cycle of insects. But pure neem oil does more than kill insects.  It also has beneficial oils that work well in a mixture of Neem Oil, BT, liquid fish, effective microbes, and seaweed extract. In Michael Phillips’s book The Holistic Orchard, he uses Neem Oil in many ways throughout the season for insect control and foliar and soil health. Neem oil controls Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs, and Mexican bean beetles, as well as leaf-eating caterpillars and aphids. It is even effective for controlling powdery mildew. 

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Organic Pesticides 

Natural pesticides are not the same as organic pesticides. And whether a pesticide is organic or non-organic, it is still non-selective and should be your last choice in pest management.  There are many brand names, but the major active ingredients are pyrethrin, rotenone, sulfur, or spinosad. These all are naturally occurring either from plants or bacteria in the soil. These pesticides are effective, and pyrethrin is the #1 used pesticide in the United States.  But that does not mean that other options shouldn’t be tried first.   

Crop Pests, Plant Health, and Soil Health 

Imagine your fields lush, productive, and buzzing with beneficial insects.  Pollinators, parasitic wasps, ladybugs, lacewings… 

Those predators are in your fields because they have something to eat…pests.  And the pollinators have a diverse range of nectar and pollen…including your crops. 

And because you have invested in your soil health, your plants are able to handle a bit of pest damage.  In your healthy soil the bacteriaBacillus, are feasting on pest insect larvae. On your plants ladybugs are feasting on aphids. In the air parasitic wasps are swooping down on tomato worms and other pests.  

And you are saving money on fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Your tractor sits in the barn more than it used to (using less diesel), and your farm products bring a premium at the market because they’re pesticide-free. You’re creating a legacy of health for your children and grandchildren. 

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