It’s hard to imagine how many thousand species of bugs there are that call Elmwood Stock Farm home. Only a handful would be considered pests, in that they show up in large numbers and wreak havoc on an otherwise-stable ecosystem. Farming basically creates unique environments, like a field of corn or rows of vegetable plants not normally found in the Kentucky landscape, so we have added to that insect diversity by adding new food choices for the bugs to choose from—free of chemicals, I might add. Even the bugs eat in peace, along with us humans.
The Bad Bugs
We don't want insect pests to eat the vegetables we're trying to grow for you, but there's more than just that. The pests' mouthparts also may carry microbial hitchhikers, thus transmitting disease, virus or mold invaders into the plant. Plants grown in a rich, well-balanced soil have a strong immune system and can tolerate some of this activity. Actually, when a marauding pest finds a weakened plant, it sends out pheromones announcing this ready food source to all its kin. The healthier plant is more resilient, and the pest may move along.
Bugs each have favorite foods. For example, flea beetles will make small holes in the kale, unless there are radish leaves about, in which case, the kale will go unscathed. In the spring, radishes are our barometer of how much flea-beetle pressure to expect that season.
If the cucumber beetles are not hurting the tender cucumber transplants (and squash, zucchini, melons, etc.) when the transplants first go out, we can avoid putting the thin woven fabric row covers over the plants to physically keep the beetles from their favorite food. Those row covers may help pest numbers decline over time as the feeding/mating season is disrupted. But it is a lot of work for us to manage the covers, and they must come off when the plants start flowering so the bees can pollinate them to make fruits.
All in all, the pests are predictable as to when and where they will start showing up. Often, people will be thankful for a cold winter to kill all the bugs. In this case, their onset may be delayed, but they will be back. They are resilient, and last I heard, even Minnesota has lots of bugs.
Conventional farmers just need to identify the creature, look at a chart for what to spray, and problem solved. As organic farmers, we have learned from our elders and entomologists about insects' life cycles. For example, under the organic regulations, we can apply Bt, a botanical solution that disrupts the digestive system of little green or red larvae that like broccoli and kale but has absolutely no impact on the adults or any other insects, which is why it is allowed for use in organics. (Even an organic-approved substance like this is a last-resort insect-control tactic at Elmwood Stock Farm.) By knowing the life stages and cycles of common pests, we can track their development and monitor when they may surpass a certain threshold of damage, rather than maintain a state of peaceful coexistence.
The Good Bugs
We actually rear some insects to be our allies in the field. We augment the homegrown population with certain species grown by beneficial-insect farmers. These insectivores live off other insects. The larvae of the cute, little lady bug, for example, are tiny, dinosaur-looking, voracious aphid eaters. (Aphids are a pest of nearly every plant we grow.) It is often the larval stage of a given species of beetle or bug that eats the most because they are actively growing, compared to the adult that has a hard shell and just eats to reproduce.
the eggs soon hatch into hungry, teeny, tiny larvae that eat the insides of the pests before burrowing out, effectively killing the pests. This class of insects is so super sensitive to pesticide exposure, it can take years before they can take up residence after the toxins have been released.
Over the 15 or so years it took us to transition our entire farm to organic operation, we have seen the number of pest outbreaks diminish and the beneficial insects flourish. Once a farm is off the chemical treadmill, good things start to happen for the plants and for the bugs.
We'll be talking about insects at the next farm tour in the Daytime Tour Series. Join us! Good Bug, Bad Bug: Living with Beneficial Insects is happening at Elmwood Stock Farm, 9:30-11 am, on August 4.
CSA members get a free ticket—just contact us ahead of time to preregister 859-621-0755. Non-members are just $10 and need to preregister, visit our website for more details, or go here to secure your registration. —Mac Stone
In Your Share
Sweet Corn Cakes, adapted from Eating Well
½ c. whole-wheat or all-purpose flour
½ c. low-fat milk
2 large eggs
2 T. sunflower oil, divided
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 c. fresh corn kernels (about 2 large ears)
½ c. chopped fresh herbs
Whisk flour, milk, eggs, 1 tablespoon oil, baking powder, salt and pepper in a medium bowl until smooth. Stir in corn and herbs. Brush a large skillet lightly with some of the remaining oil; heat over medium heat until hot (but not smoking). Cook 4 cakes at a time, using about 1/4 cup batter for each, making them about 3 inches wide. Cook until the edges are dry, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until golden brown on the other side, 1 to 3 minutes more. Repeat with the remaining oil and batter. Reduce heat as necessary to prevent burning.
Stuffed Swiss Chard, adapted from Ciao Italia. Let Swiss chard take the place of pasta in what you’d think of as a stuffed-shells or manicotti recipe.
2 c. ricotta cheese, well drained
½ c. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2 T. chopped parsley
8 large whole Swiss chard leaves with stems, washed
1 small onion, diced
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. tomato sauce
Preheat the oven to 350° F. In a bowl, combine ricotta cheese, egg, 1/4 cup of the grated cheese, salt and parsley. Set aside. Cut away and thinly slice Swiss chard stems. Set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Add the whole chard leaves and blanch for 10 seconds. Carefully remove leaves with a slotted spoon and allow to cool. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan. Add onion and chard-stem pieces and cook over medium heat until stems soften. Cool the mixture slightly, then add to ricotta-cheese mixture. Lay each Swiss chard leaf flat, and spread 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture down the center of each. Starting from the end nearest you, roll each leaf to encase the filling, folding in the sides as you go.
Savory Summer Squash Quick Bread, from Chowhound
¼ c. olive oil
2 c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. finely ground cornmeal
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ¼ tsp. dried oregano
¾ tsp. fine salt
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
¾ c. buttermilk
2 c. grated summer squash
⅔ c. finely crumbled feta cheese (about 3 ounces)
Preheat oven to 350° F with a rack in the middle. Generously grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, oregano, salt, baking soda and pepper together in a large bowl. In a separate large bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk and olive oil. Using a rubber spatula, fold in squash and feta until evenly combined. Pour squash mixture into flour mixture and stir until flour is just incorporated, being careful not to overmix. (A few streaks of flour are OK.) Scrape the batter into the loaf pan, pushing it into the corners and smoothing the top. Bake 60 to 65 minutes, until golden brown all over and a toothpick comes out clean. (Test several spots, because you may hit a pocket of cheese.) Cool the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then turn out the bread onto the rack and cool for at least 15 minutes more before serving.