By Cam Mather
This was the question that my neighbor Ken asked me recently. I had just told him about the bugs eating my berries. “Can’t you just spray?”
So how’d you spend your weekend? Road trip? Shopping? Reading at the coffee shop? I spent a recent weekend here on my knees cutting garlic scapes and squashing bugs. And I mean a lot of bugs. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just an observation on how humans have so many choices available to them. I love my choice of living in the country and trying to generate an income growing good organically.
This can be a very discouraging proposition. Early in the season I am overrun with cutworms, a caterpillar that lives just below the soil surface and takes out plants when they are small and vulnerable. In many years they have completely decimated certain crops. This year I had about the usual amount of damage, which I’ve grown accustomed to.
Each year something new always comes along to keep things interesting. Last year our raspberries did fabulously well with very few pests. This gives you a cocky sense of complacency. “Oh raspberries? They’re so easy to grow organically!” NOT! Well not this year anyway. I have an unholy pestilence of “scarabs” this year and they are trashing my berry plants in big numbers. I first noticed them on my blueberries. My beautiful blueberries with lush green, shiny leaves. I was watering and noticed some of the leaves were damaged. Upon closer examination I noticed the scarabs.
Scarabs are nasty little pests that will take out the berry flowers and young fruit, or just chew on leaves. You can see in the photos what a leaf looks like after the scarabs have chewed on it. While it may look like a lovely lace pattern, this damage severely restricts the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and convert that wonderful sunlight into energy to be used in the biomass of the plant. Left long enough they’ll denude the whole plant and it’s game over.
So I spent the weekend on a hunt and squish mission, going over each of my berry plants numerous times. Their natural defense is to drop off the plant when disturbed so I go after them with one hand and put my other hand underneath to catch the ones that drop off. And they can fly, so I have to pick the ones out of midair that take off. Later in the weekend after I had removed the worst of the infestation, I began shaking the plant stalk and most would fall on to the ground where I eliminated them. You have to work fast though, because some will scamper under debris and hide while others will try and get airborne to fly away. Oh it’s a barrel of fun.
I noticed that scarabs are a big part of Egyptian artwork. You see them used extensively on jewelry. Come on ancient Egyptians, what were you thinking? Scarabs? Really? They’re obnoxious! They’re eating my berry plants. And you want to immortalize them on jewelry? Interesting that the scientific classification of scarabs is the Class “Insecta”, Order “Coleoptera”, which looks like Cleopatra to my dyslexic brain.
We’ve had problems with scarabs on our peonies in previous years, but this is the first year they’ve ever gone after the berries like this. If I had just left them they would denude every plant and I would have no berry plants next year. This may be cyclic, they may not be as bad next year, or they may be worse. Essentially I’ll have to make a mental note to keep this time of the year clear to deal with them. Problem is, there is no spare time at this time of year. We haven’t had much rain lately, so I am watering full time, and trimming garlic scapes (which is a full time job with 10,000 heads of garlic) and I’m still finishing up some planting. Oh and weeding. So essentially it just means in the gardens by 6 a.m., out by 8 p.m., with lots left undone.
So when Ken asked “Can’t you just spray?” the answer of course is “Yes, I am physically capable of purchasing a pesticide and nuking them.” The question is, do I want to? Do I want to eat diazinon or whatever pesticide would eliminate them? My berries are well formed now. Anything I apply will leave a residue on the berries I eat.
A lot of the organic control methods seem to deal with eliminating pests like these in the larva stage when they’re grubs. But I have to wonder even if I applied a beneficial nematode within a reasonable distance of all my gardens, would it eliminate them? They can fly. So I’ll always be exposed to them from the surrounding area.
Which brings me back to the task at hand. Spending many hours inspecting my plants and squishing scarabs. There is no question my time would be better spent here at this computer creating eBooks to sell, and taking that money and buying berries grown by someone else. But at this stage of my life, that seems like a copout. This is what I want to do. And I need to stick to my principles of growing organically. It’s a stupid amount of time. But it gives me lots of time to think. And here is the conclusion I’ve come to.
1) The world CANNOT feed 7, or 9 billion people using organic methods.
2) We’re running out of easy, cheap oil and gas, the basic building blocks for modern chemical agriculture used in the “green revolution” that has allowed us to feed 7 billion people today.
The result of my conclusion is not a good one, but one I think most of you can figure out. Ultimately food will be more expensive. And it will be in short supply, certainly at various times of the year. Hence the need to eat strawberries in June until you’re so sick of them it takes another 11 months until you’re ready to feast on them again.
And if you can find a local organic farmer selling her wares at the farmers market, make sure you not only patronize her, but also thank her for her efforts. If anything just thank that farmer for not giving in to the impulse to spray. I understand the impulse and if I was trying to grow on a large scale and earn my income from only growing food I’m not sure I could make a living if I didn’t.
In the meantime I’m going to try and train the chickens to eat scarabs faster. They seem to take their sweet time eating them, which gives some of the scarabs time to fly away. And once I’ve caught a scarab once, I have no desire to have to do it again.