Pest control often makes or breaks an organic farmer’s year. Because we use fewer, less-toxic pesticides than those used by conventional farmers, we must rely on a variety of other methods to keep pests in check.
Beneficial insects are key to our success
At Earthbound Farm, our primary strategy for fighting harmful pests is to build up populations of beneficial insects that help us by eating adult pests, eating pest eggs, or by becoming parasites inside pest insects themselves.
Check out our Beneficial Insect ID Chart for a look at some of the beneficial insects we use, and the pests they prey on.
Host crops as habitats for beneficial insects
We build populations of beneficial insects by planting borders around our fields with “host crops,” flowering plants that the beneficials particularly like. We generally use plants such as buckwheat, alfalfa, clover, radish, yarrow, coriander, dill, carrot, vetch, baby’s breath, California poppy, bachelor buttons, and alyssum. We plant them once at every site, and they re-seed themselves every year.
The host crops are good habitat for the beneficial insects we periodically release into our fields, and they also attract more beneficials over time. The borders also serve as “trap crops,” distracting pests from our crops by providing them with an alternative food supply.
Crop rotation breaks the infestation cycle
Insects are creatures of habit; if a food supply keeps coming back at the same place and same time each year, you can bet that insects will return, too. Thoughtful crop rotation disrupts this cycle. We try to anticipate where and when different pests will threaten our crops; then, as much as possible, we strategically adjust our planting schedules to avoid the likelihood of a serious infestation.
Insecticides approved for use on organic crops
When a pest outbreak can’t be handled by beneficial insects, we sometimes use insecticides approved for organic farming (meaning that they’re allowed under the USDA’s stringent National Organic Standards). These organic insecticides must have low toxicity to people and other animals, low persistence in the environment and low toxicity to beneficial microorganisms in the soil.
But sometimes the pests win
Although all farmers can lose a crop to pests, organic farmers are more vulnerable. Sometimes natural pest control strategies are very effective — but other times, nothing we do seems to work. We can lose a large portion or all of a crop to pests, and then we have to till under everything in the field. Occasional losses such as these contribute to the higher cost of organic produce.
Next in Organic 101:
If we've done everything right and Mother Nature cooperates, we've raised our organic crops successfully. But there's more to being “certified organic.”