If you’re a farmer, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do, you’re going to face some certainties. The weather will be unpredictable, you’ll need to manage your land and natural resources to the best of your ability, and controlling pests will be an ongoing challenge. And these are only a few—so it’s a good thing farmers are the original innovators.
An innovative mindset is something Tai Ullmann, sustainability manager with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, has seen again and again on farms across the country—and even around the world. Part of her job involves visiting Land O’Lakes member-owners to learn what they are doing around sustainability, helping them measure the impact of these sustainable practices and then looking for new opportunities. And although she’s seen a lot, some things still surprise her.
Take for example a trip to Dorrich Dairy in Glenwood, Minnesota. While conducting an on-farm sustainability assessment, the topic of how the farm controls pests came up. The Vold family was trying something new on its 4th generation farm, using stingless wasps to reduce the fly population. Although not a common practice on dairy farms, it made sustainability sense; working with nature, instead of working against nature.
Tai would later find herself in Kericho County, Kenya, of all places discussing the exact same thing—innovative, sustainable pest control solutions—with Victor Kipkorir, a young tomato farmer.
“Sustainability can mean many different things but it starts with a mindset,” says Tai. “Every farmer faces the same challenges, and every farmer has common goals. These two farms couldn’t have been more different based on appearances, but they were similar in so many ways. It showed me that farmers everywhere are working with nature to find long-term solutions to make their farm more sustainable for future generations.”
Why sustainable pest control
Pests, besides being pesky, can spread disease and cause crop and monetary loses. The gardeners out there can understand the need to keep your plants free of pests and disease. And if you’ve had the misfortune of a summer night filled with swarms of biting mosquitos, you can sympathize with the problems flies present for cows on farms. Tai says that’s why farmers take a comprehensive approach when it comes to pest control.
These are four common approaches farmers consider when targeting pests:
Biological (wasps would work, more on this below)
Cultural (an example would be changing irrigation practices to reduce standing water)
Mechanical (using traps or other mechanical barriers)
Chemical (the most well-known approach, spraying pesticides)
“Chemical controls are just one tool in the toolbox,” says Tai. “In modern farming, we use multiple tools. Starting with extensive monitoring helps better identify pests and the application of these different tools for a more comprehensive and sustainable solution. This touches on the triple bottom line which means having economic, environmental and social benefits.”
The buzz at Dorrich
According to Tai, the Volds embody the modern family farm. Dorothy and Richard Vold (the “Dor” and “Rich” of Dorrich) along with their sons Brad and Greg, and Brad’s wife Suzanne, run the innovative farm.
“The Volds are investing in sustainability to ensure a long-term viable business for their kids,” says Tai. “They’ve had the farm in the family for more than 100 years, and they hope it can be there for another 100.”
While Tai was discussing the Volds’ approach to using pesticides and herbicides, wasps came up. Flies naturally develop resistance to pesticides over time. The Volds decided to place wasp larvae in fly nesting areas throughout the farm. These aren’t the large stinging wasps you might be familiar with, but small, stingless wasps about the size of a gnat. The wasps lay their eggs in the fly larvae, and when the wasp larvae hatch, they eat the fly larvae. The new adult wasps repeat the cycle.
By working with nature, the family has been able to reduce their synthetic pesticide use by up to 85 percent.
Trapping tomato moths
Fast forward and Tai found herself in Kenya at Nikita Farm. There she met Victor Kipkorir, a former electronics engineer who along with his wife, Nicolette, decided to build a greenhouse tomato farm from the ground up.
“Immediately, Victor reminded me of the Volds,” says Tai. “I think the farms physically looked different, but he had the same approach and mindset. He’s running a progressive, small-scale tomato farm. I think besides the size, that farm could have been anywhere. And he was thinking of what would be best for his farm, how he could improve to make the business more viable for the future, and how he could use and protect his natural resources. That’s what our dairy members here in the United States are doing, too.”
The group visiting that day learned that Victor’s first crop of tomatoes didn’t go so well. There was a small but devastating problem—Tuta absoluta had infested the plants. This tomato moth causes a 100 percent loss in tomatoes. The pest currently affects thousands of farmers in Kenya and has shown a resistance to pesticides. Victor went online, looking for a solution. He found Kenya Biologics, Ltd. and its Tutrack innovation. In 2014, Kenya Biologics was among three proof-of-concept innovations to win a seed funding and technical assistance award through the Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine (KIE). KIE is a five-year program, funded by USAID and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development. Tutrack is an affordable, pheromone-based system for trapping Tuta absoluta. How it works is natural chemicals are placed in traps to lead moths into them instead of the tomato plants.
The innovation is unique because the lure is specifically designed for the Kenyan climate and market. It’s currently being developed in collaboration with Kenyan smallholder farmers, those who typically farm on less than an acre of land and live in geographically dispersed areas. Victor was one of 10 farmers to attend the initial training on the Tutrack innovation in Kericho County. He was open to trying new ideas and testing to see what would work on his farm. The innovation worked. His next crop of tomatoes was pest-free and reached its full yield potential. More tomatoes meant more income.
“Both these farms are looking at what makes the most sense long term,” says Tai. “That’s what sustainability really means—an approach that works with nature to provide comprehensive, cost-effective solutions that make the farm more viable for future generations. Farmers think in terms of generations.”
Our sustainability story
The Volds and Kipkorirs have something else in common—both families are committed to sharing the story of agriculture, and the importance of sustainable solutions, with their communities. Victor regularly hosts impromptu tours for neighboring farmers and has hosted more than one international group at his farm. The Volds regularly partner with Land O’Lakes to share the story of their farm and their award-winning innovations.
“Seeing farmers’ innovative mindsets across agriculture is unifying. Despite our differences, we face similar challenges to achieve a common goal,” says Tai. “Sustainability is an approach or mindset that has always been a part of farming and it will continue to be a part of farming in the future. Although traps and natural solutions may seem simple, the story behind these innovations is one that’s important to tell.”