Insect Jeopardy!

CW-MR-1-Insect-jeopardy10391by Tamara Scully

The dozen or more attendees at Penn State Extension’s New Organic Vegetable Producers class — the second class in an ongoing series of five spring and four fall classes offered in the Lehigh Valley — were playing games. In this case, it was a game of “Insect Jeopardy,” designed to insure that they will know if crops are in jeopardy from insect attacks, what to do to prevent pest problems, and how to treat them.

Each class in this series covers a different aspect of organic farming. Classes are offered “a la carte,” and walk-ins are welcomed, both at the in-class and the on-farm workshops.

Tianna Dupont, Sustainable Agricultural Educator, who leads the classes, was determined that these new and aspiring farmers would have the basics of organic pest control within their grasps by the end of the evening.

“Just by looking at the damage, we can figure out what we have,” Dupont said, as the contestants pondered the Jeopardy clues.


Scouting for pests and correctly identifying them, as well as identifying plant damage and correlating it to the correct insect culprits, are a main priority for organic growers. Before any control methods can be implemented, farmers first need to know exactly what they are battling.

Knowing where, when and how to scout properly greatly increases the chances of catching a pest or disease issue before it’s too late. Scouting all parts of the plant — leaves, stems, fruits — and scouting field edges as well as interior rows, observing several plants in each selected area, is important. Ultimately, a dozen or so locations in the crop field should be examined, moving in a random “W” pattern. Visual observation using a hand-held magnifying glass is key to scouting.

Another tool is the sweep net. With this, the net is swung in a full 180 degree arc from side to side, one stroke per step, as the farmer walks the field. The net should be swung low for short plants, and kept just below the top of the crop for taller ones.

Traps are used to attract pests, monitoring their maturity stage and population levels. In pheromone traps, female hormones attract and kill males, limiting reproduction of the existing pest population. Pitfall traps are sunk into the ground, capturing insects as they move in along the soil, and killing them via a solution such as soapy water, both reducing the pest population and monitoring pest levels.

If insects or eggs are not observed, or if there is some concern about proper identification, plant damage gives another important clue to the culprit, Dupont said. Common types of damage include: stippling/speckling; defoliation; leaf mining; tunneling; frass (insect excrement); and plant distortion.

Control methods

Dupont emphasized that knowing the life cycles and habitat of the common insect pests is imperative to understanding how best to control them. Farmers can utilize a variety of cultural controls to combat pests by making the environment unfriendly.

Many insects over-winter in crops residue. Squash bugs, for example, find winter habitat in their adult form. They like to live in heavy mulch, and will ultimately emerge and lay eggs. Nymphs feed on the crop, causing the plant to wilt. While scouting for the eggs masses is effective, preventing the adults from overwintering is a primary control method.

“If you can’t till it in, at least chop it,” Dupont said of crop residues.

Rotating crops annually, so the emerging insects have to travel to find their preferred crop, is another control method. Potato beetles overwinter as adults, then walk to the crops to lay eggs. They only feed on solanaceous crops, so if the crop is no longer there, they will die. If they do succeed in laying their eggs, however, the larvae will quickly become adults, and these second generation adults can fly up to 1/2 mile seeking food.

Crop rotation alone won’t work. Leaf hoppers come in on air currents from the south. Therefore, the timing of their appearance varies from year to year. The damage they cause is easily confused with late blight. Curling, stunting and burnt looking leaf edges are some signs of these “flying dandruff” pests.

Planting resistant varieties is one way to beat pests. Row covers might help at certain times, excluding the pest from the crop. With the Brassica flea beetle, there is a mid-summer period where the pests are not active. Brassica family crops planted during this window of time won’t be as stressed by the pest.

Soil temperatures of about 55 degrees indicate that pests will be emerging, Dupont said. Knowing this, along with a basic understanding of pest life cycles and habits, can go a long way to preventing problems, or controlling problems before they reach the threshold of economic impact.

“If you are going to have a problem, you really have to start managing it early on,” Dupont said, specifically referring to harlequin bugs, but applicable to controlling pests in general, particularly in organic systems.

Harlequin bugs are finding refuge in Brassica crops, such as tillage radish, grown in fields over the winter. The popularity of winter Brassicas, with many farmers “trying to grow Brassicas all year long,” is another concern. With no host-free periods, these bugs readily multiply.

One method of control is to aggregate the bugs in a trap crop. Planting a trap crop well away from the cash crop can keep the crop bug-free, while also making it easy to eliminate the pest via a backpack vacuum.

“It takes advantage of aggregation,” Dupont said of the contraption. Special high-powered suction vacuums are needed, which are available on the commercial market, or can be crafted from leaf blowers.

Providing crops with a healthy soil and enough water, so they do not become stressed, is a first line of defense against pests. Increasing plant vigor helps to fend off diseases that pests can vector. Succession planting, so that a new crop is available throughout the season, can help alleviate economic concerns of pest damage.

Providing beneficial and predatory insect habitat is another means of decreasing pest pressure. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insect food sources, attracting them whether or not the pest is around, and making them available when pests do attack. Undisturbed strips of grass can increase ground predator levels.


In some cases, handpicking insects is just as effective as organic sprays, and “can be economically effective even compared to an organic spray,” Dupont said. But for some pests, “most of our organic farms are spraying.”

Proper use of sprays, and proper spraying technique, is imperative. Organic crop protectants need to be started early, at a lower insect threshold, than conventional sprays. Complete coverage is necessary. Water may need to be buffered for pH level. Nozzles and equipment need to be calibrated properly.

Certain sprays are best for certain pests, and will be ineffectual against others, or during certain life cycle stages. Thus the importance of knowing the pest’s characteristics is the basis for all organic pest control techniques.

“Know your insecticides before using them,” Dupont cautioned. Resistance can develop quickly, and “we don’t want to lose the effectiveness of the product.”

Farmers Market Federation of NY launches its Farm and Farmers Market Websites Program

by Mary C. Gruszka

Running a successful farm business relies not only on technical skills in the field, but increasingly on internet and computer skills, as well as promotion and marketing savvy.

To help farmers and farmers markets increase their web presence and skills to better promote their operations, the Farmers Market Federation of New York launched a new website development program.

According to Galena Ojiem, Federation Program Administrator, the Federation’s website program is funded by a grant from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program and includes a free template-based website design, domain name registration (if needed) and hosting for one year, webinars, and an instructional manual and video on how to administer and update the site. Future years’ hosting fees, to be paid by the farmer or market, will be at a discounted bulk rate from the hosting service. The domain name and website will be the property of the farm or market. The grant can cover websites for 100 farms or farmers markets.

With many marketing avenues available, some may question the value of a website, thinking that it doesn’t matter for local businesses or that it will take too much time, money, or knowledge. Ojiem quickly put those notions to rest.

With the prevalence of review websites, Ojiem noted they already have an online presence. “Most likely a consumer will turn to online reviews to make a buying decision,” Ojiem said. “Something will pop up with your farm name, like a news article or a live review. You don’t have control over the reviews, but you do have control over your website.” A professional looking website can overcome one bad review by giving a better impression of the farm.

Ojiem pointed out that studies showed that 97 percent of consumers search on-line for services in their local area, but only 45 percent of small businesses have websites and can be missing out on business.

Yet not any old website will do. “A poor website is just as bad as no website at all,” Ojiem said. “If it looks like it’s hastily put together, and never updated, customers will get the wrong impression.” In addition, at least half, if not more, of internet searches are done with mobile devices, so a website today needs to be mobile friendly.

For its program, the Federation is using WordPress as its web development platform. “It’s the most popular web site platform,” Ojiem said. “It’s user friendly and allows better SEO [Search Engine Optimization}.” If a website is well-optimized, it will appear high in search engine results. The template chosen is also responsive, which means that it automatically changes its screen presentation according to screen size, making it easier to read on mobile devices.

The template is tailored especially for farms and farmers markets, with two main ingredients –—information and a call to action. Information pages include farm history or other information about the farm, contact information, a map showing location, directions, pictures, products that are available and when, links to social media sites, if any, and blog articles or recipes. A call to action can be a sign-up form for a CSA, an invitation to visit the farm or farmers market, or a newsletter sign-up.

The farm or market will need to gather and write the content before submitting it to the Federation, who then use it to make the website. Creating that personal touch is important, Ojiem said, as people like to connect with local farmers.

“Use your web presence to tell your unique story, who you are, why you farm and how you farm,” Ojiem said. Include some pictures, “Look at the pictures you have or take some,” Ojiem said. Stock photos could be used as a last resort until better pictures can be taken on the farm during the season.

As with the farm story, products too should be given good descriptions, with what makes them unique and different from competitors and the supermarket.

Contact information is most important. In addition to a contact page, this information should be included at the bottom of every page.

A website shouldn’t just be an electronic brochure, Ojiem stressed. “Having a website is better than not having one, but having one that’s regularly updated and maintained is even better,” she said. “If there’s no content, [people] leave your site.”

Adding interactivity and updated content like blogs, articles or recipes, keeps customers engaged and more likely to return to a website. Invite site visitors to post comments or share recipes.

Updates don’t have to be long or perfect. They can be written in advance when one has more time, and then scheduled to be posted later.

While a common template is used for all the sites, they can be customized so that one farm’s site doesn’t need to look like another’s. Ojiem said, there are six different color scheme options, a background photo can be added, and different font types can be chosen.

When choosing colors, “you want subtle, complementary colors, not too clashy or too bright,” Ojiem said. Other things to consider are a good balance between pictures and text, with neither overwhelming the other, and an intuitive menu and links. Avoid scrolling or flashy elements. Visually it should be easy to find what one is looking for. The font needs to be legible and with good contrast against the background.

Don’t worry about getting everything right the first time out. “The website does not need to be perfect. It will always be a work in progress,” Ojiem said. “A nice template and design will make your farm appear professional even if you are a one-man show. Put a little time making your web site and you will reap benefits.”

Those interested in participating in the program start by filling out an interest form at

They will then be contacted by the Federation and given a list of the items needed for the website.

GMOs: Distinguishing fact from fiction

By Mary C. Gruszka

Genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms can be controversial subjects. Growers often have to field questions about GMOs from concerned consumers, and it can be challenging to clearly explain what they are and how they differ from traditional cross-breeding.

So it was timely that the keynote speaker at the recent Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse, Dr. Margaret Smith, Pant Breeding and Genetics, Cornell University, presented a clear and concise overview of genetic engineering (GE), a comparison with traditional plan breeding, commonly grown GE crops, a review of scientific studies on the impact of GE crops and safety, and what to expect in the future.

In her presentation, “GMOs: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction,” Smith said that genetic engineering is a logical extension of what plant breeders have always done, starting with domestication, and continuing to intentional selection of new crops and varieties and traditional cross-breeding. “Genetic engineering is a new tool to breed improved crops,” she said.

Smith noted that she is a traditional plant breeder who doesn’t work in genetic engineering. She cited studies that show “most people have never heard of plant breeding,” and that study respondents did not realize that they most likely had eaten fruits or vegetables that were products of traditional cross-breeding.

In traditional cross-breeding, genes from two parents are combined in an offspring which contains a mix from each. There can be mistakes, called mutations, in copying genetic code. This often produces undesirable characteristics in a plant, but sometimes something useful results. And these plants can then be selected for future breeding.

On the other hand, genetic engineering, as Smith defined it, is the transferring of individual genes between organisms or modifying a gene within an organism. “With genetic engineering you change genes in the DNA so there is no need for sexual cross-compatibility,” Smith said. “There’s no mixing of genes like in traditional cross-breeding,”

For consumers, Smith said, the benefits of genetic engineering aren’t clear and there’s the concern that comes with new technologies.

Since introduction in the 1990s, GE crop production has increased exponentially, with corn, soybeans and sugar beets, leading the way. For GE fruits and vegetables it’s harder to tell which of the approved varieties of plum, apple, radicchio, squash, potato, peanut, tomato, papaya, eucalyptus, flax, and rose are in actual production.

GE crops grown in the US fall into three general categories – Bt, herbicide resistant, and virus resistant.

The Bt crops include corn, cotton, and sweet corn. These are toxic to certain insects especially Lepidoptera, when they ingest this type of plant.

The herbicide resistant crops include soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa. The virus resistant crops include papaya in Hawaii and some summer squash.

Some GE crops like field corn are stacked, meaning that they contain both Bt and herbicide tolerant genes. “Over 90 percent of the field corn in the US is stacked,” Smith said.

In 2014, new GE crop varieties that were approved include an insect resistant soybean, a reduced lignin alfalfa, a potato with reduced black spot bruises and low acrylamide production, soybean varieties with 2, 4-D, dicamba, HPPD tolerance, and a dicamba tolerant cotton.

“We’ll see what happens with potatoes. They are currently building up seed supplies,” Smith said. However, “one fast food chain said that they won’t use it,” she added.

GE crops that are being considered, but not yet approved include a non-browning apple, a potato with late blight resistance, reduced black spot bruise, low acrylamide potential, and lowered reducing sugars, and a 2, 4-D resistant cotton.

As for the farm-level impact of GE crops, Smith reported that a 2010 National Research Council (NRC) study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that more herbicides were used, but a less toxic one. This allowed more reduced tillage practices. Glyphosate use is on the rise, as are the instances of weeds that have evolved resistance. Fewer insecticides are being used. However, corn rootworm has evolved to be resistant to insecticides and crop rotations.

Why the weed and insect resistance? “We forgot that pest management is not a silver bullet,” Smith said. “You can’t use the same management year after year. The pest will get a resistance.”  Another reason is that stacked varieties are providing insect control whether it’s needed or not, and exposes the insect population to select for resistance. “Let’s not forget our IPM muscles,” Smith said.

The NAS-NRC study found that for farmers, they benefitted economically in growing GE crops with advantages for worker safety and convenience. However the study concluded that the social impacts, as well as effects on prices and growers who don’t use GE crops aren’t well understood and that there needs to be more study of market concentration of GE seed producers.

Market concentration has been increasing with about three-quarters of approved GE crops controlled by four companies, Monsanto (with the largest proportion), Dupont, Syngenta, and Aventis

Whether there’s too much concentration, is not a science question, Smith said. Rather, it’s a social issue that relies on the political process.

Smith said that 60 to 70 percent of supermarket foods have ingredients from a GE variety, especially products made with soy or corn or with their derivatives. And this raises the question, is it safe to eat these foods.

Smith explained that food safety tests are focused on compounds that are novel or unique. A 2014 summary of over 1,700 studies about food and feed safety and the environmental impact of GE crop products found no credible evidence of safety concerns. “There were studies that expressed safety concerns but they were discredited as to validity,” Smith said.

This led into the topic of labeling and how to determine if a food or refined ingredients are genetically engineered or derived from GE foods. Smith explained that if a food, like whole produce, contains protein, there are measurements to detect the DNA and to see if it’s been modified.

But if an ingredient that is derived from a plant, like vitamins, lecithin, canola oil, or corn starch, does not contain protein, there’s no DNA present to analyze. Corn starch, as an example, is made up of chains of glucose molecules, Smith said. “No DNA, no protein.” Beet sugar was another example Smith gave. It’s composed of sucrose and is identical to cane sugar. “Both are purified to be just sugar,” Smith said.

This can complicate labeling. Smith showed a slide listing over 50 common food ingredients that are derived from corn or soybeans. A cereal, for example, could make a claim that it contains no genetically modified ingredients if the ingredients themselves don’t have any GE components, even though those ingredients could have been derived from GE plants.

Labeling will have a cost for the consumer. Smith said estimates vary, but for New York it could be around $500 a year increase in food costs for a family of four. Smith explained that while the cost of the label itself is small, most of the expense involves tracking every chain in production. Smith said that consumers already have choices in certified organic, non-GMO verified and other voluntarily labeled food products.

So are we eating foods with ingredients from GE crops? Most likely we are, but as Smith said, “most are refined ingredients with none of the novel DNA or protein in them.” The exception would be GE fresh produce as sweet corn, papaya, and some summer squash. “Credible evidence to date shows no risk,” Smith said. “But future products need to be evaluated.”

Combating antibiotic resistant bacteria


For years the critical question of antibiotic resistant bacteria and it’s relationship to the health and welfare of the general population has been debated and discussed at a variety of levels. Now the question has reached the highest level of government prompting President Barak Obama to issue an Executive Order to thoroughly study the problem. This order would appear to signal a significant shift in the thinking of those who have long been involved in studying the problem. For decades the addition of antibiotics to animal feed has been an accepted practice defended by animal scientists as having little or no impact on the possibility of antibiotic resistance.

In recent years a mounting body of evidence would suggest that this line of reasoning is no longer valid. Of the total volume of antibiotics produced annually in the United States the great percentage of that production has been added to animal feed to promote more efficient feed utilization and provide a low level of antibiotic to control possible intestinal infections.

Bacteria are remarkable resourceful organisms able to adapt to a wide variety of adverse conditions that man and nature have developed to greatly modify or halt their activities. These changes have not always occurred quickly but given enough time the bad bugs will usually find a way to survive. This period of adaptation has led in many instances to the development of the so-called super bugs which now plague physicians and hospitals throughout the world. It was this serious public health problem that led to an Executive Order issued in Sept. 2014 entitled, “Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria”. This act created a five year, $1.2 billion overview that would bring together experts in both human and veterinary medicine to develop a plan that would resolve the problem.

To oversee this ambitious project the President created an interagency task force with the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense and Health and Human Services providing the necessary leadership and direction. Five goals were outlined in the plan which included slowing the emergence of resistant bacteria and preventing the spread of resistant infections; strengthening the One Health surveillance effort; developing rapid diagnostic tests; accelerate the research and development of new antibiotics, vaccines and other therapies; and improve international collaboration on prevention, surveillance control and research.

The Executive Order is far reaching in its outline but the matter of funding has yet to be resolved so until Congress gives its authorization very little is going to happen. Assuming that the funding is approved those involved in animal agriculture, especially in the beef industry, are going to be required to make some significant changes in their management practices. Under FDA Guidelines the use of medically important antibiotics presently used for growth promotion in food producing animals will be eliminated and there will be veterinary oversight of such antibiotics when used for treatment, control or prevention of disease. This change in a long standing practice will require that all of those involved at any level be informed of the changes.

This will not be a quick fix. Some farmers, veterinarians and feed dealers may not stay abreast of what is going on in the cutting edge of the industry. To address this potential concern the FDA will be developing a plan to insure that all potentially involved parties are informed of the mandated changes.

Another issue that must be addressed is the need to bring livestock producers and veterinarians up to speed on that which now constitutes the acceptable use of antibiotics. This new usage has been given the name, “stewardship of antibiotics in animals”. Veterinary colleges may be required to revise some of their course materials in order that future graduates are fully in tune with new treatment protocols. Both the FDA and the USDA will be developing new guidelines to insure that all involved are fully aware of their new responsibilities. Many will find themselves somewhat confused as they work their way through regulations that are crystal clear to the bureaucrats who wrote them but murky to those in the trenches.

A program will be developed to monitor the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Within five years the FDA, the USDA and the industry will evaluate and report on the total sales of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the types and prevalence of antibiotic-resistance among selected foodborne pathogens and commensals isolated from retail meat and farm animals. The latter group are those organisms which exist in a given environment without doing harm. A baseline for the use of antibiotics will be developed using the sales of antibiotics from 2009 through 2013. The present plan calls for a study to look at production practices at selected points in the food chain to determine whether certain antibiotic use practices in food production facilitate the development of resistance. At this time the National Animal Health Monitoring System collects voluntary on-farm use information but there is need for increased on-farm antibiotic use data so the USDA will be developing a plan to increase monitoring. On farm sampling will continue to be voluntary.

In the face of increased antibiotic resistance there is an urgent need for new antibiotics, vaccines and other therapeutic measure to combat disease. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear the development of new antibiotics has slowed to a snail’s pace in recent years. The large pharmaceutical companies have scaled back on their research and development creating a huge void in the creation of new antibiotics. It has fallen on smaller companies to take up the slack and their research activities are often limited by inadequate funding and facilities. The Federal Government has stepped into the picture offering grants and support to assist these smaller innovators. The great likelihood is that one or more of these innovators will come up with a new class of yet to be defined antimicrobials that will supplement or replace antibiotics as we now know them. At this time there are so-called biopharmaceutical incubators that allow academics and independent start-ups the opportunity to brainstorm among themselves to hopefully come up with ideas that may change current treatment and preventative programs.

At this time there is an increasing movement towards the “One Medicine’ concept where all health care providers interact and move towards a common goal. All animals, two legged and four legged, often interact at some level and sharing of information becomes increasingly important as the planet continues to shrink and especially in the face of a disease that many species share in common. Response times, isolation protocols and treatment programs need to be in place to insure maximum effectiveness in times of extreme urgency. Data collection in all aspects of a disease outbreak needs to be complete, accurate and swift making it critical that all members of the health care network are working together. In this era of instant communication a major obstacle has been overcome.There are in place a number of systems that monitor bacterial resistance and they can provide almost instant information about a suspect case anywhere in the world. Knowing what not to do becomes almost as important as what to do.

Today there are few, if any, disease outbreaks in which one country can stand alone in resolving problems that are of universal importance. Effectively combating antibiotic resistance throughout the globe will require government, industry, academia and the human and animal health sectors working together. The global community has limited tools to address this global threat due to the critical lack of data on the magnitude, epidemiology and economic impact of antibiotic resistance, as well as the lack of diagnostic and therapeutic options. It is important that in the face of an outbreak in one part of the world that it be rapidly detected, diagnosed and contained at the point of emergence. Many organizations exist worldwide that are focused on this problem.

Everyone involved in animal agriculture at any level should be aware of this emerging problem and the threat it poses to both humans and animals. Funding to support all of the many levels of research will be necessary to find all of the answers lies in the hands of our representatives in Washington. If this problem affects you in any way contact your person in Washington and let him/her know of your concerns.