Discovering IPM: Complexity of Integrated Pest Management

Discovering IPM: Complexity of Integrated Pest Management

Posted September 11, 2013

Beginning my career in the world of sustainable agriculture, it all seemed simple enough: industrial is bad, organic is good. Right? I wanted to change the way we engage with our food as a society and educate others on the importance of a healthy food system for a healthy home and family. Easy! Until I met Integrated Pest Management. 

As the newest addition to the Red Tomato team, with no previous farming background, I quickly learned that infinitely complex ecological systems like diversified farms do not lend themselves to black and white statements like I had imagined. When they told me that Red Tomato supported predominantly IPM growers, my first reaction was (just as yours may be now): What in the world is IPM?

What in the World Is IPM?

When I first heard about IPM (Integrated Pest Management), my immediate reaction was negative: “But that’s not organic.” I had internalized an extremely effective marketing effort behind the “organic” and “natural” brands. Don’t get me wrong, I think the less chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers used out in the world the better. I had just never really delved into the science behind it from a systems perspective. In my mind it was one-size-fits-all, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sustainable agriculture is about what’s best for the people involved, the consumer, and the land, and balancing what’s best for all three can be incredibly complicated for a range of reasons including climate and geography.

IPM Is Simple (in Theory) 

Codling Moth, Courtesy Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

Know thy enemy.

IPM growers focus on controlling pests rather than total elimination, and to do this they must be experts in multiple areas: crops, soil, weather, and the pests themselves. The main focus of an IPM strategy is prevention.

IPM growers go out into their fields and monitor visible pest activity, and take action only when that activity exceeds scientifically established thresholds. In the meantime, they use numerous prevention and avoidance strategies, including introducing beneficial insects that prey on their targeted pest. They might use companion planting to divert the pests away from their marketable crops.

The Integrated Pest Management Toolbox

When a pest population has exceeded the threshold, the grower bases their actions on scientific data. Would spraying four times with a natural pesticide be more destructive to the land than spraying once with a synthetic? Can the problem be solved by utilizing traps or pheromone ties? The IPM growers have many tools in their toolbox.

Charles T. Bryson, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

Many of the tools employed by IPM growers would be categorized as “organic,” and many organic growers use IPM.  As a last resort, IPM methods do allow for synthetic pesticide applications, but sprayings are very strictly regulated. IPM growers know what pests to expect, they monitor for them, and then they tailor their suppression efforts to that specific species.

That way, beneficial insect populations and other organisms are only minimally exposed, if at all.

The Red Tomato Eco Apple® and Eco PeachTM certifications programs actually include specific protocols to protect pollinators. Though it’s definitely fashionable to be down with the bees these days, it’s also practical, if not essential, for anyone growing food on a diversified farm.

This Is How I Think About It

Say I have sprinklers in my yard and I have them set on a timer. They turn on and apply a set amount of water to the grass every day. But what if it’s a rainy day? What if the sprinkler head is pointed at the house instead of the yard? What if that particular variety of grass doesn’t require water every day to thrive?

I could easily keep my lawn green and healthy with way less water than I’m actually using if I paid more attention and became better acquainted with the variables. The same goes for spraying chemicals, synthetic or naturally derived.

The Variables

IPM growers avoid calendar spraying (having set spraying schedules regardless of conditions, like in the sprinkler analogy above) to reduce the usage of chemicals to only when it’s absolutely necessary. Why spray if there are no pests? Or if you know the weather will cause the spray to affect areas outside of the area that requires it?

To make things even more complicated, the variables are…well… variable. But these farmers know their stuff and they control for the smallest detail in order to use only the exact amount of coverage needed for impact. They check things like:

Nozzle calibration (is the correct amount being applied?)
Where on the plant (trunk, leaves, etc.)
Orchard cycle (are trees in bloom, when pollinators might be more at risk?)
Weather (precipitation, wind speed and direction)

And a host of other details that they have to keep on top of!

It’s smart and it’s responsible. Take a look at the video What is IPM to get a better idea of how it all works.



So what’s the bottom line?

I think the bottom line, based on what I’ve learned in my short time here at Red Tomato, is that we may need to pay more attention in the produce aisles and weigh a number of factors. It is so important to know where your food comes from and how it’s grown. Organic fruit and veg are obviously a great choice for those of us trying to minimize our environmental impact, but that doesn’t mean pesticide free and it doesn’t mean local. Were those tomatoes trucked across the country in a refrigerated truck? Is there a local option that may not be certified organic but employs IPM methods? Talk to local growers at the farmers’ market about the pieces of this puzzle that are most important to you and your family.

Information is power, and for me just knowing that growing methods come in shades other than black and white is a great start!