Archive for July, 2010

The 3M’s – Mites, mealybugs and migraines!

Thanks to my fellow Plant Doctor Kelley for this title. This time of year, after weeks of summer heat, the bugs are really going to town. Sometimes it seems that I’m not even looking at the crops hard enough for as much as I search, it seems there is always something the “blows up” overnight. Small infestations that can easily be missed will turn into a mess in less than a week. My schedule has me visiting each farm once a week, with some time set aside to make a second visit if I see problems starting. Most of the time you can tell if a pest issue isn’t going to take care of itself and you need to order up a spray. In the spring, many times you can let nature take it’s course and allow the “good” bugs to control the “bad” bugs. But it seems in the summer the pest just multiply so fast that natural predation just can’t keep up. And, it is hard for us humans to keep up as well. When it comes to spraying pesticide, I admit I a minimalist. Sometimes that can get me into trouble as I look at a pest infestation just beginning and I say, “well, I’ll look at that in a few days and make a decision then”. Most of the time though, in the summer, you just have to bite the bullet and clean things up before they clean you out! It is not hard to see the problems the mites are cause when you drive around as you can see the trees turning brown and the vines “burning” up in spots. Seems like everyone is having a problem with mites this time of year.

Mealybugs in the grapes is another problem as they are hard to find and sneak up on you. Once you have some spots found and marked to keep an eye on, other spots pop up in elsewhere. Sometimes it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is challenging and fun at times. But when the heat is over 100 degrees and the irrigation make it very humid, the fun turns old real fast. (thanks to UCIPM for the photos)

Dirty Dozen?

There was a report on our local news about the Environmental Working Groups “Dirty Dozen” which they claim to be the worst food for pesticide residue. The list hasn’t seemed to change much over the years. That seems odd to me because I do pest control on many of those crops and I know my pesticide practices on those crops have changed dramatically over the years. They say these crops have “detectable” pesticide residues. I look at the information they have and there is one column that is titled “total number of pesticides found on the commodity” and under peaches it says 67. 67!? What does that mean? That they found 67 different pesticides on the peaches? Even on my worst pest year I bet I only use maybe 5 or 6 pesticides in one season. On the early harvest fruit, a lot less. I can’t see under any real life scenario how that many different pesticide could possible be found? What levels? It looks like they add up all the residue levels and come up with a number but are any of those levels even toxic? I bet you could add up all the household product residues on your kitchen counters and come up with a number but what does that mean as far as being dangerous? Knowing that this is very anti-pesticide use it is hard to think that this so-called “science” they are using isn’t tweeked and massaged to prove their point of view. Is this “real” science? Are we all going to keel over and die from eating these fruits and vegetables? Most of the health and cancer information that is coming out lately seem to point to unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking, etc, as the biggest worries for our health. Trying to scare people away from healthy food because of some made up fear of pesticides seems to be a poor way of helping people be more healthy. If there are some concerns about the environment regarding the use of pesticides, those should be dealt with in an honest way, not by making up data to scare people. Our society does not have the resources to be trying to deal with issues made up by special interests that have an agenda they want to push. This leads to over regulation that hurts the economy and wasted tax dollars by over burdening government agencies that have to try to regulate all this stuff. Most people do not have the time or inclination to follow up on stories like this and try to get a balanced view. Even the reporter that ran this story couldn’t be bothered to do research on the facts and took what was released by the EWG on face value. Are you fearful about pesticides in your food? If so why? Do you use chemicals around your home or business? Are you fearful of those? If so, have you bothered to find out if you should be?

Do you read the label?

There are many home chemical products we all use without giving them a second thought. Many are actually categorized as pesticides, such as many antibacterial agents, bleach, and others. When was the last time you actually read the labels on these products. Did you know there was a poison warning on toothpaste? Do you always follow the mixing instructions when refilling your products from a concentrate? Or do you just pour some in and fill the rest of the bottle with water and assume “a bit more will be better anyway”? Do you read that label on the bug spray you are using in your kitchen or garden? Farmers and their pest control professionals must have a license to use pesticides on the farm. Every year they must take classes and attend seminars to keep up-to-date on what is new for products, safety, environment issues, etc. Label requirements are more that must how much product to use but what safety equipment the people doing the spraying must wear, what environmental hazards to look out for, what hazards may be present for surrounding crops or even those that may be planted next year and more. There are also state regulations to take into account. For farmers, using pesticides is much more complex than buying a can of Raid off the shelf and using how ever you want. There are many more homeowners than farmers. If homeowners are using pesticides without reading the label, taking safety factors into consideration, or even following dosing instructions, which group do you feel is doing more harm to our environment? How careful are you?

Do you choose the things you support?

People seem to have a lot of ideas on how things should done. If we make decisions on how business should be conducted, do we then have the obligation to support those businesses if they comply? If you want your food to be grown organically, pesticide free (those two things are not the same, by-the-way), with labor paid good wages and benefits, livestock cage free and running free on the range, etc, then do you make purchases accordingly? What are your priorities when you are making purchases? Do you choose first based on your “moral” preferences or do you consider price and value first? As we know, the majority of consumers go for price and value and if it then fits their “moral” standards, they consider that a bonus. Should it be any different for a farmer making a choice on how he should grow his crops? We all share the same environment and resources. The choices a farmer makes affects more than just his crops and his land. Same thing with the consumers at the other end of the line. Your choices on what you buy affects many other things, all the way back to all of those people who participated in producing it. Remember that Americans pay a lower percentage of their disposable income on food than any other developed country. We like things cheap. We are the consumers that are always going after the best deal, latest sale, lowest price. But if we demand certain things from those that produce those products that continue to increase the cost of production, is the constant search for the best and lowest price really what we should be after?

Decisions, Decisions. What to spray and how to decide

Well, the worm cycle in the alfalfa hay is going full bore this time of year. Seems like before July, most years, they are easy to manage and are controlled but most pesticides that you choose. There are some, what we call, “soft” chemicals that target the worms and are not toxic to other organisms. I really prefer to use these types of products. But something happens when the temperatures get hot. The worms just explode. The go from eggs to causing big areas of damage very quickly and these soft materials just do not work as well later on in the season. This happens with other pests as well. The heat just makes the populations go faster and the pests grow bigger faster and the pesticides just do not work as well. In the alfalfa, the material that works the best at this time of year has some side effects though. It shows up in the water samples in the rivers. Not a good thing. We cannot use it within 24 hrs of putting water onto the field but even doing that it is still showing up in water samples. The problem is now that it is very hot and the alfalfa needs water. The other options do not seem to be working as well to kill the worms and these options are much more expensive as well. On a crop that is not making that much money to begin with, using a more expensive option is not very popular. So do you go with the cheaper option with environmental problems or the more expensive options that may not be most effective but safer for the environment? Well, what do you do? What changes have you made in your life to help the environment? Have you made those easy, cheap fixes but not the ones than may be more expensive? Have you bought that Prius yet? Farmers make the same choices. It isn’t that they don’t want to do everything they can to help the environment. They have to do what they can afford to do. We all make those choices. We have a budget to consider and sometimes the options available to us are not as good as we’d like but we have to do what is best for our business, family, crop, etc. Think about that next time you hear about farmers maybe spray a chemical that some find questionable for the environment?

How much spray is too much?

July is here and now things start to get interesting. This year seems like it may be a relatively quiet year, pest-wise. We had a very cool spring and early summer. This puts many of the crop woefully behind schedule but it also makes for lower “bug” pest populations. For example, in the grapes I have not seen or sprayed for many of the pests I usually do. I have sprayed in the table grapes and in the stone fruit for pest but we usually do in “fresh” market crops. The trigger for when you spray in these crops is lower because the amount of damage you can have is lower. People do not like worm hole, insect scars, etc on the fruit they buy. I think if people were a bit more tolerant on how their fruit looked and allow for some superficial bug damage, I could spray even less. I finally saw some mites in the big walnut trees I watch. These are big trees and hard to spray and usually the mites get so bad by the end of the summer the trees are losing leaves. But I hardly see any mites at all. This is a good time to spray as I can use less pesticide to knock down a very small population. Usually in the summer when it gets hot the good bugs can’t control the rapidly climbing pest populations so when July comes I usually start to clean things up so I can use small amounts of pesticides instead of waiting for pest levels to explode and having to bomb them. I have some cotton I look at. The cotton crop is very far behind schedule. I can usually leave a small about of Lygus bugs in the field but this year I had to spray early. Why? These bug damage the flower buds and they fall off. Because the crop is late we cannot afford to lose the early crop that is now forming as we will not have time in the fall to get any later flowers to develop into cotton bolls. Every year is different.

When you look at news articles that groups like the Pesticide Action Network puts out about “Pesticide Use was up” is such and such year, do not just think farmers were irresponsible for some reason. Weather conditions dictate a lot of what goes on in a natural system and how farmers must respond. I bet pesticide use will be way down this year in California but you won’t see the Pesticide Action Network or other anti-pesticide group tell you that.

How do you look at risk?

How do you evaluate risk in your life? Do you feel you can safely use your cell phone when you drive but cringe when you see someone else do it? Many of us feel risky behavior is not as risky when we are doing it because we are in control, or so it seems. But we don’t like it when someone else does it because we do not know if that person is going to do it safely enough to avoid hurting us. We will spray pesticides on our gardens, in our homes, etc when we see bugs, rodents, etc. Judging but the amount of these products use by homeowners it seems most people have no uneasiness in using them. Most people don’t like to share their living space with cockroaches and mice. But it seem there is a lot of uneasiness in some quarters about farmers using pesticides. We don’t know what they do, how they do it, we don’t know what the products are, etc. People tell us these things are bad and we are more likely to believe that because we view behaviors being done by others as risky. It is out of our comfort zone.

Let’s look at it from another angle. Let’s say you have an illness that is going to get very serious and may be life threatening. How you look at it will be determined a lot by how you feel about the disease you have. If it is cancer you will probably panic as that word has a lot of baggage attached to it. If it is something you have never heard of you may be less likely to panic but be pretty scared anyway. The doctor has two options for you. One is a very toxic dose of medicine with a high probability of nasty side effects but will probably get rid of the disease quickly. It is covered by your insurance. The other is not toxic but will take many more treatments over time and is not covered by your insurance. The toxic one will make you very sick and put a heavy burden on your family. But you have a better chance of recovery. What factors do you consider? Toxicity, cost, harm to others, quick recovery that has a high success rate, slow recovery with less of a chance at working. All interesting questions.

These are all very similar questions that a farmer and a pest control adviser must consider as well when treating a sick field. How bad is the problem? Does it need a quick fix? Will the quick fix be toxic to other things? What will those consequences be? How can they be mitigated? Will a less toxic option work? What are the economic costs? There are so many situations and possible solutions. These decisions are not made lightly or without due consideration. We do not live in a risk free world. Choices need to be made. You make them about your life, farmers make them about theirs. They are not evil doers, intent on poisoning your world or your children. When someone tries to scare you into thinking they are, remember, they live on that land and they have children too.