Organic Ways to Fight Crop Pests

Organic Ways to Fight Crop Pests

There are a growing number of organic solutions for crop pest control, and we will see even more as Biological products gain momentum in the agriculture industry. Sustainably-geared Integrated Pest Management methods involve starting with observation and then implementing a solution with the least environmental impact. While they may not always be the quickest, their cost-effectiveness and long-term positive benefits are usually worth the wait.

Let's explore some more natural ways to fight crop pests while making your farm more profitable, but first, a personal anecdote:

Every spring, I used to find aphids on my pepper plants. I would quickly get out the expensive organic insecticide and spray them all down, reveling in satisfaction as every last aphid died. One spring morning while completing an unrelated task in my field, I spotted more aphids but told myself I’d take care of them once I was done. Later that day, I brought out the spray and notice, to my surprise, that my pepper plants were now covered with ladybugs. They were chowing down voraciously on those aphids.

ladybug eating aphids on a plant

From then on, I never sprayed my peppers again. I knew that even though I may still see a few aphids here and there, the influx of ladybugs in my field was something to be happy about - and as long as that balance was visibly observed, my crops and my whole farm would be better off. In all my years of growing, I’ve learned at least two things about insect pests:

  • Almost every pest has a predator.
  • If my crops are healthy, I have far less insect damage.

Those may seem obvious, but plenty of farmers continue to go out there and attempt to eradicate every single “bug” in their fields. I know this because I used to be one of them, and I promise you that there is a better way!

Do You Have Crop Pests?

If you’re walking your fields and start seeing holes chewed in leaves or clusters of tiny insects on the back of your plant foliage, should you immediately get out the pesticides and take care of the problem?

You may not even have a real problem in the first place, but simply an easily solvable farming maintenance issue. While some insects are attracted to healthy plants, "a healthy plant is more likely to survive an insect attack than an unhealthy plant," according to Phil Nixon at the University of Illinois Extension.

The first question would be if you are maintaining healthy soil to give your plants the highest chance of reaching their maximum health potential. Using a high amount of fertilizers and pesticides will make crops have a harder time overcoming pest problems.

crop pest signs in plant foliage

Planting monocrops can also contribute to increased pests, as the insects are finding a large buffet table of fodder with seemingly no end in sight. The soil's microbial community is limited to those that support that particular crop - creating a potential gap in the farm ecosystem. Diverse crops and crop rotations create biodiversity in your soil. And a microbially diverse, healthy soil is your first recourse to eliminating pest problems.

There are steps to take to keep your farm profitable and insect damage under control as you change your soil management practices to improve soil health. It’s always a good idea to get a soil test to find out exactly what’s happening in the top 6 inches of your soil, where your plant roots get their nutrients and where microbial partners hang out.

4 Steps To Reduce Insect Pressure To A Reasonable Level

  1. Identify the insect. In every field there are insects that are trying to decimate your crops and there are predators who eat more than their body weight in those “bad bugs.” Before you destroy an insect, figure out if it’s helping or hindering your farm.
  2. Find out all you can about the insect’s life cycle. While it can be hard to get rid of a hard-bodied insect like a grasshopper or a Japanese beetle - a little research will allow you to know when they are most vulnerable. You can then use that information to plan your pest control efforts to be their most effective.
  3. Decide if you need to take action…or if the damage is going to be within tolerable limits. If you decide to act, consider all your options. Insecticides work but are the most detrimental to the “good bugs,” especially pollinators like honeybees. Eventually, anything you spray on the plants will make it into the soil, killing off certain bacteria or fungi that create balance in your soil.
  4. Keep watch for those pests in the future. Pests are never totally eradicated. And even if they were it would mean that predators would have nothing to eat. Nature is a balancing act between pests and prey that only emphasizes the fact that both are necessary.

Organic Solutions For Crop Pests

While there are many solutions to pest problems in your crops, the following shortlist can provide some ideas of where to start. Feel free to further your research with the many books written on the topic, consider experimenting with homemade solutions, or borrow some creative tips from this Florida Farm.

Companion Planting

This is one of the most cost-effective and easiest solutions in the long term for control of insect pests. You can either plant within the crop row or dedicate strips (the most effective) to these plants. Companion plants provide habitat to beneficial insects that are predators to crop pests that you may have on your cash crops.

Companion planting in crop rows on farm field

Companion planting also helps attract pollinators to increase your crop productivity. Bumblebees, honeybees, and even flies are all beneficial as pollinators. 

Furthermore, most insects (and deer and rodents) don’t like the smell of onions so planting perennial onions or even letting wild onions grow around a field or throughout the field is a wonderful deterrent. The texture and smell of daikon radishes planted throughout a field will deter many insects, mice, and deer. It also acts as a cover crop, breaks up clay soil, and the long taproot brings minerals up from the subsoil. Almost all herbs are a deterrent to deer, and many have oils or aromas that are disliked by insects.

Once this is in place you have free labor from beneficial insects, deterrents for many large crop pests, and cover crops to retain topsoil.

Trap Crops

The other way to avoid insects on your cash crops is to plant what are called “trap crops.” Trap crops are planted prior to the cash crop, and are usually of the same family. Amazingly, insects tend to prefer the trap crop and will typically devour it before touching your cash crop. It has also been found that eggplant is preferred by insects that attack the Solanum family including peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes.

Trap Crops may appear to be a higher cost, but they make a big difference in productivity. And trap crops may even end up becoming a secondary revenue source because wherever there are pests there are predators. If your trap plants are growing in healthy soil, they will be able to survive the crop pests until the predators find them.

Beneficial Insects

Integrated Pest Management Solutions are often associated with Companion Planting. Beneficial insects attack and feed on insect pests. Some of the better-known beneficials are ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantis, and parasitic wasps.

lacewing beneficial bug

For beneficials to remain on a property they need an adequate habitat (the companion planting strips) and for a steady supply of their prey to remain. In other words, killing off all the “bad bugs” will cause the “good bugs” to fly away in search of their next meal.

There are companies that specialize in rearing beneficial insects for all types of insect issues. Google “beneficial insects,” and you will find numerous companies.

Natural Pesticides for Crop Pests

These are pesticides and fungicides that are made from plant materials, minerals, or tree oils. They are a large group of pesticides that work in many different ways to control crop pest populations.

BT - this is the shortened version of Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil. There are many different strains of Bacillus, each targeted to a specific insect larva. Bacillus toxins are activated when the target insect eats it. This pesticide is usually sprayed on the foliage and, if pests are still active, will have to be sprayed again after a rain. If your soil is healthy, you will have naturally occurring Bacillus bacteria that will take care of insect larvae that are native to your soil. The fact that you have insect issues is a good indicator that you need to check the microbial activity in your soil with a lab test.

Diatomaceous Earth - this isn’t a chemical. It is a powder made up of fossilized diatoms, which are algae. It has sharp edges (to an insect, it won’t hurt you or your pets), and when the powder comes in contact with insects those sharp edges cut their bodies and the insects die of dehydration. It is best used when the weather is dry. It will kill Japanese beetles, cutworms, flies, ticks, crickets, slugs, and many other species. Use caution with Diatomaceous Earth because it will also kill beneficial insects.

Neem Oil - comes from the seeds of the Asian Neem tree. It works by inhibiting the growth cycle of insects. But pure neem oil does more than kill insects. It also has beneficial oils that work well in a mixture of Neem Oil, BT, liquid fish, effective microbes, and seaweed extract. In Michael Phillips’s book The Holistic Orchard, he uses Neem Oil in many ways throughout the season for insect control and foliar and soil health. Neem oil controls Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs, and Mexican bean beetles, as well as leaf-eating caterpillars and aphids. It is even effective for controlling powdery mildew.

Organic Pesticides

Natural pesticides are not the same as organic pesticides. And whether a pesticide is organic or non-organic, it is still non-selective and should be your last choice in pest management. There are many brand names, but the major active ingredients are pyrethrin, rotenone, sulfur, or spinosad. These all are naturally occurring either from plants or bacteria in the soil. These pesticides are effective, and pyrethrin is the #1 used pesticide in the United States. But that does not mean that other options shouldn’t be tried first.

Crop Pests, Plant Health, And Soil Health

Imagine your fields lush, productive, and buzzing with beneficial insects. Pollinators, parasitic wasps, ladybugs, lacewings…

Those predators are in your fields because they have something to eat…pests. And the pollinators have a diverse range of nectar and pollen…including your crops.

Because you have invested in your soil health, your plants are able to handle a bit of pest damage. In your healthy soil the bacteria, Bacillus, are feasting on pest insect larvae. On your plants ladybugs are feasting on aphids. In the air parasitic wasps are swooping down on tomato worms and other pests.

And you are saving money on fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Your tractor sits in the barn more than it used to (using less diesel), and your farm products bring a premium at the market because they’re pesticide-free.

Most importantly of all, you are creating a legacy of health for your children and grandchildren.

Posted in: Gardening, Soil For Humanity

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