To Spray Or Not To Spray

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By Jeff Main of  Good Humus Produce,  courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

Sometimes an unborn child’s heart will try to beat on its own while still in the womb, and the result is read on monitors as an unpredictable, fluctuating heartbeat.    As spring tries to start and winter tries to hold her grip, the result is similar.    Rain dashing through, bound for somewhere else, preceded and followed by winds, and interspersed with calm warmth that opens the petals of the flowers within the hour.    Spring, winter, spring, winter, the transition is chaotic.    But underneath it all there is solid evidence that the times are changing.    Walking through the broccoli or through the Karinata kale, both of whom have gone to flower and seed, I see the steady and relentless explosion of the grey aphid population.    Zach and I look at it carefully, and I know it is hard to watch without worrying about their spread.    We watch as they cover the stems of the kale, and we are thankful that we don’t need to harvest this anymore.

But what to do?    Will they spread to nearby plants?    How is this transitional weather affecting them?    As we look, we try to believe that there are more small white skeletons eaten by predatory ladybeetles and lacewings, and more tan bodies with the telltale hole in the back that tells us that the parasitic wasp has emerged and is laying more eggs in other aphids.    One of the purposes of our diversity and California native plantings is to provide the habitat to encourage the proliferation of the predators that are the controls for the ever multiplying aphids.

Do we need to get involved?    Oh, the temptation is great.    There is the fear that a winged generation of aphids will emerge on the overcrowded plants and spread to the far corners of the farm.    And sure enough, there are some.    Right now the aphids covering the stems seem agitated, are they sensing the time to spread?    We have several options.    We can mow them, Grinding and spreading their little bodies over the ground and a long way from the life sustaining plant juices.    Or we can spray soapy water, suffocating them.      Or we can step back and take our chances with the natural processes, remaining faithful to the diversity and habitat doctrines of nature that we have tried to incorporate.    Luckily, the weather has been warm, off and on, encouraging the flight and reproduction of the predators.    Will our luck and vision hold and win the day, and keep the aphid “krill of the insect world” in check?  Truthfully, we don’t know, and the crops of collards, broccoli, chard and turnips are at risk.    It seems like a good bet, the large colonies of aphids on the kale offer unlimited food which can mean unlimited expansion of the predators, until they snuff out the aphids.    I’ve seen it happen, somewhere, sometime.

And besides, I hate to spray.    Now, I will spray, for sure, but I dislike the noise, the smell, the reliance on something totally foreign to the process of nature, and representing our impatience at the natural processes and our willingness to generate collateral damage to other species in order to achieve near eradication.    It also represents all that is making more difficult through our breeding selection program.    In our quest for uniformity, vigor, response to fertilizer and tolerance of various chemical mixes, breeding for tolerance or resistance to plant feeding insects has less or no priority.    To spray is an admission of our lack of ability to work with the natural processes to produce our food and instead to demand submission to our dominant overlay.

But like I said, I will spray, using the most narrowly destructive, organically approved sprays that I can find. In the late 1970’s I was trading tractor driving for oranges with a family that had recently bought a farm.    On this farm, that had been in existence for over 100 years at that time, there were also some large, old Royal Blenheim apricots.    In this particular year, the man who owned the farm decided that his trees could do without a brownrot spray during bloom, a vulnerable time for apricots.    Conditions were good for brownrot, and blooms and leaves came out and were wiped out by the fungus.    In a week, the trees looked dead.    But for 3 weeks, they struggled and a new set of leaves emerged, but still the owner refused to spray the copper so needed for protection.  A second bout of warm, wet storms supplied the necessary conditions, and, after another struggle, the trees were gone.    My Dad said only once to me that a person that won’t take care of their trees shouldn’t have them and in this case I agree.      And so I try to take care of my trees.



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