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Agricultural Entymology

Everyone loves insects I’m sure. While intellectually we all know that creatures like, ants, wasps, spiders (which are not insects), arthropods and others all serve a purpose sometimes it seems that purpose is to eat our crops. Everything we grow, there is a pest that eats or damages it. With luck and some knowledge we can mitigate the damage done by these organisms.

Certainly the best thing we can do is to keep damage from happening, or to minimize it upon first noticing it. So how is this accomplished? Some say that companion planting is the first defense against pests. Unfortunately the science is not very deep on this subject. This is not to say that companion planting does not work only that it does not have much in the way of peer-reviewed research done on the subject. If the majority of your agricultue exposure is through gardening or perhaps smaller scale organic/permacultural operations then by all means some experimentation with companion planting cannot hurt.

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A much more researched method of pest control and one I have more experience in is the use of biological controls. This is of course the use of beneficial insects as predators to control the target pest population. This method requires multiple steps, the first of which is having host plants that can support your planned predatory insects. Lady beetles, predatory spider mites, lacewings, and predatory wasps can all act as biological control insect species. Each will eat different pest species and do so in differing quantities. Using this method will work best in enclosed spaces to keep the target insect population as high as possible for the longest period of time. Low tunnels, cold frames, and greenhouses all are ideal settings for this method. Also of concern with this method is that use of traditional pesticides will affect not only pest species but also beneficial insects and as such is not advised except as a last messure.

Right now I personally am experimenting with companion planting in my back yard garden. I have however witnessed the effectiveness of biological controlls within the research greenhouse setting. What do you think about trying to manage pests around your own crops?

Aquaponics

Growing both fish and crops in one system is not what most imagine when thinking Agriculture. I have found it to be a fascinating system. Since January I have been partaking in a college Aquaponics course. It can be a strange idea, growing plants using fish waste as a nutrient media. However, if properly managed there is scant chance that harvested crops will have any sort of contamination, even e-coli. That is resultant from the waste only of warm blooded mammals. One of the largest advantages of this method of growing plants is the amount of water used. At its most efficient Aquaponics systems can operate while using up to 90% less water than traditional agricultural methods. This is a result of the water being nearly all covered or only come into contact with plants. As a result the loss of water is limited almost exclusively to surface evaporation. Since the exposed surface area is limited so to is the evaporation.

How does Aquaponics work?

Fish or certain shellfish live and are raised in tanks, and the waste they produce are then transported to plants which feed from and filter the water that is returned to the fish. Thus aside from the initial filling with water, and electricity, feed for the fish is the largest operating cost.

Genetic Agriculture

A pretty hot button topic lately is the use of GMO’s. The acronym stands for Genetically Modified Organism. We know the name but how many of us really know what GMO’s really are? That all depends on where you get your definition from. The federal government has a fairly specific definition, only organisms that have genetic information from more another organism inserted into them are considered GMO. This means that much more common transgenic organisms do not fall under this umbrella. A transgenic organism has not had any genetic material added to it. The only modification it has had is a change in coding function. That means a specific sequence that was coding for a protein  was turned off, or an inactive sequence was turned on. There are other methods of manipulating traits in organisms such as selective breeding and through radiation. In the case of irradiation the change comes in the form of a mutation. The change is not predictable, and this is most commonly used in plants. Selective breeding is the practice wherein a male and female of the same species, both having desired traits, are bred to each other. In order for this to be successful the traits that are being selected for must follow a Mendelian inheritance pattern. This means that the desired trait must be present in the F1 and F2 generations in predictable patterns. If these patterns are observed then producers (in our case agriculturalists) can predict the inherited traits of the resulting animals or plants. The importance for us is that this  will allow for the selection of things that have improved yields, disease resistance, flavor, storage ability, etc. There are currently a multitude of GMO products on the market for human consumption. I hope to soon get into some pros and cons of these crops and do a highlight on several of them. What do you think about GMO’s?

What happens when the growing season is over?

Fall is firmly in full swing, at least in most parts of the country. This means that frost or snow has caused the growing season to end. So what does that mean for our fields that have been harvested? Do we just leave them to sit fallow until the time comes to plant the new crop in the spring? I would say the answer is an emphatic no. There are things we can do to improve the soil during the off-season. You can do a few things: Mulch, green manure, or plant a cover crop. In this first edition of off season soil enrichment techniques I’m focusing on Mulch.

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Image from Google images.

Mulching is any process where you would cover the soil. What we mulch with depends on your goals. There is a method called sheet mulching, that I prefer. What this consists of usually is the laying down of either newsprint or cardboard covered by a finer substrate. That is usually something like a chopped wood bark or wood chips. What this process does is create a physical barrier to protect soil from water and wind based erosion. This is accomplished by causing a break against wind and water. It keeps the elements from carrying off good topsoil. This is vital to being able to grow crops in the coming season. Another benefit to mulch is that it can protect seeds like garlic from harsh winter weather while allowing it to still germinate. It does this by allowing the soil underneath it to remain warmer than the unprotected surrounding ground. The final benefit I’ll talk about here is the providing of an environment for organisms that are beneficial to crops. Mulch can help earthworm populations as well as provide shelter for all sorts of critters in the soil food web. It helps to protect organisms like earthworms, which are very beneficial to the soil. They serve to decompose organic material like leaves, crop residue, and kitchen scraps. All of these will eventually become compost that will feed the soil and build nutrients for the plants to be grown later. Earthworms create what some call “black gold” which is in actuality the worm casings, an extremely nutrient rich manure like substance that can be used as a soil amendment. Finally earthworms burrow through the soil creating channels “pore spaces” in the soil that will allow water infiltration to be increased. This means that when it rains more water will be absorbed and be available for plants. This also means that less runoff will occur and that results in less top soil and nutrients washing away.

Mulch protects the soil, shelters organisms, rebuilds soil nutrient profiles, and it can be done cheaply compared to other methods of helping the soil. If done carefully one can even mulch for free (at least on the smaller scale). Collecting leaves and grass clippings from neighbors is an easy way to get cheap or free resources for mulching. Another less well known source of mulch is from your local municipality. Check your local recycling center for a mulch pile, most will let you fill up as much as you want and in my experience it is completely free.  I urge every one to give mulch a try this fall and winter.

 

Different Agriculture

Are there different forms of Agriculture? The short answer here is obviously yes. So what are some of those forms?
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Commercial Agriculture: This category is pretty straight forward. In this method producers (farmers) provide their products on a commercial scale. This usually takes the form of massive monocultures. A monoculture is an agricultural system in which a single product is raised at a time. This typically serves the purpose of generating maximal income for the farmer. In order to accomplish this task commercial farmers tend to have much higher input costs. These come in the form of mortgages on land, large machinery costs, fuel, seed, labor, chemically derived fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and time. The major upside of this form of agriculture is the ability to produce a larger quantity than non commercial producers. This is the form of agriculture that most of us encounter most often. These producers are the ones that sell their goods in retail grocery stores and places like Wal-mart. These goods are generally less expensive per unit and are available over a broad time domain. What this means to us the consumer is that we can go get the same groceries almost year round at reasonable price. Is this the best way to things? That depends on who you are. For many commercial agriculture is the way to feed the world, and it can, to some extent. A large downside however is the reliance on fossil fuels. Tractors and machinery require oil and diesel to operate. Chemical fertilizers and many pesticides are derived from petroleum also. There is also the supply to consider. Commercially grown food does not go straight from the farm to the retailer. It must stop for cleaning, packaging, and shipping. The transportation requires diesel to run planes, and tractor trailers.

I think I will make this a multi-part series about different forms of agriculture. Hopefully the next part in the series will center on CSA’s.

 

Bees

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”- Henry David Thoreau

Many of us are not fans of insects. We see them as something in the corner of our houses to be squished. Sometimes I completely agree with this sentiment, even though on an intellectual level I know that they all invariably serve a purpose. We often do not know that purpose, or we choose to ignore it. It seems lately we have been leaning toward the latter with bees. The bee about which I am speaking is of course the Honey Bee (Apis nearctica L.)

 These little guys do so much for us that we seem to have taken them for granted lately. I you looked in newspapers over the summer there is a chance you saw something about the bees that died in South Carolina. The more likely headline was about some thing political or even the Zika Virus. This virus is related to our friends the bees, but certainly not in a good way. The fine people of Dorchester County, SC had a massive killing of their bees caused by a pesticide spray used with the intent to kill mosquitoes that may have carried Zika. I can certainly understand the desire to keep people safe and healthy. But what about keeping them fed?

Whether most of us understand it or not we rely on bees everyday. We consume, food that they polinate: almonds, fruit, most flower producing vegetables, if it has a bright flower chances are good a bee has pollinated it. We use beeswax in cosmetics and candles. Honey is an amazing food, one reason is the ability not to spoil. According to National Geographic “The honey, dating back approximately 3,000 years, is the world’s oldest sample – and still perfectly edible.The secret behind honey’s eternal shelf life is a range of factors. Hydrogen peroxide, acidity and lack of water work together to make this sticky substance last forever.”

Bees are a resource that should not be understated within the community of Agriculture. They help us to generate not only the commodities that we grow for sale, but they grow their own. Keeping bees on properties have been shown to increase crop yields. They also have extra revenue streams that if carefully managed will benefit man and bee alike. Being good stewards of bees does require some specialized equipment and knowledge. Luckily one can acquire a great amount of that knowledge through the internet. I certainly recommend heading over to PerfectBee they are currently running a beginner beekeeping course that runs until the end of January. I have yet to find a more easily accessible source of bee know how.

Please go and learn more about your food, and if you have the opportunity support a local producer. Or better yet become one. If enough of us do that we can change the world. We can make it what we want it to be.

Why is agriculture relevant?

Do you like food? That sounds like an obvious question. Everyone I know likes food. Even if they didn’t guess what we all eat it anyway. We need it to live. Everything living does, in some way eat. We’ve established the need for food so where does agriculture come in? Well according to everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia wikipedia “Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants and fungi for food, fiber, biofuel, medicinal plants and other products used to sustain and enhance human life.” That sounds like a substantially important idea to me. Historians typically date the beginning of agriculture to somewhere around 10,000 years ago. This also happens to coincide with the formations of the earliest civilizations that have been discovered. From that we tend to understand that the specialization that was necessary for these civilizations could not have occurred without agriculture. The ability to reliably generate a surplus of food allowed humans to gather in larger groups. This led to the need for government and record keeping. This also led to a gathering of knowledge. This in turn fostered the creation of new technology. That new technology was used to expand territory and raise the standard of living. This mean the creation of tools and weapons and systems for change. The Egyptians used technology to flood the Nile river delta, to grow food, and they made ships to trade across the sea. Romans built great aqua-ducts to transport water over great distances. Much more recently that has translated to highways in the United States. We use them to transport materials and food cross country. So is agriculture still relevant today if we are already a civilized people? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Never have there been more people that need to be fed. In order to take care of that need we must make the systems we have in place more efficient. We also need to make food production more local in order to lower the reliance on a global supply chain that is entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Making food a personal matter is to me the way that generations going forward will be able to feed themselves while keeping the planet in good shape. So please learn something about your food so that at a minimum you can make more responsible choices that may drive the future of agriculture. And if you are so inclined get involved with food on some level, if that means growing herbs on your windowsill or growing everything you eat, something is better than nothing.