IPM, Antibiotics, and Fire Blight- is there a happy medium?

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Applpy over at Thought + Food recently published an interesting article talking about increased antibiotic use in organic pear and apple orchards.  These antibiotics—Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline—are used to combat fire blight, a contagious disease that can destroy an entire orchard in a season.  It’s spread primarily by pollen-bearing insects such as bees, and although it’s indigenous to North America it has since spread to the rest of the world.[1]  It’s extraordinarily damaging, especially to organic farmers whose orchards tend to contain more pollen-bearing insects thanks to decreased pesticide use.  That’s why organic farmers received an exemption to allow them to use these antibiotics on their fruit—but applpy pointed out that organic labels don’t require disclosure of antibiotic use anyway.

So where do we draw the line between antibiotic use and orchard health?  Fire blight is devastating, but antibiotic use in food has proven to be problematic;[2] is there a way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of fire blight without the use of antibiotics?  Applpy raised this question, and I had commented on the potential of Integrated Pest Management/Control (IPM/IPC) to do exactly that.

But what is IPM?  Well, it’s integrated pest management—so just as pesticides won’t be effective, IPM can’t control this bacteria-born blight entirely.  However, IPM is a series of practices that dovetails perfectly with fire blight prevention.   Rather than dousing orchards in fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, IPM advocates a more sensible, measured approach.  From the EPA’s website:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

So what does that mean for fire blight prevention?  Rather than spraying affected trees and fruit with antibiotics, farmers would instead scan for early signs of infection and plan new orchards based on existing knowledge.  For example, nitrogen containing fertilizer and heavy pruning increases susceptibility; farmers would know keep that in mind when selecting fertilizers and pruning.  Infected shoots can be pruned during the dormant season to contain spread; IPM involves year-round orchard maintenance and supervision.

Essentially, IPM is a low-chemical, common-sense approach to pest management that has the potential to cut down on fire blight without excessive use of antibiotics or pesticides.  It’s not so advanced yet as to make pesticide and antibiotic use obsolete in fire blight cases, but it can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed.  So what do you think?  Do you know much about IPM or exemptions for organic farmers?  What are your thoughts?

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community gardens part 4: the smart economic choice

Working hard at the Intervale Center!

Working hard at the Intervale!

In terms of environmental efforts, community gardens foster a local food system that’s beneficial for both the wallets and the environment of their communities.  Gardens are an environmentally sound mode of food production:  large amounts of food can be grown in small areas, and the food doesn’t need to travel as far.  In addition to reducing fossil fuel usage (it takes a lot less gas to transport a tomato down the street than to transport a tomato from Florida), it also has a much lesser environmental impact than large, industrial-style monoculture farms.  Instead of depleting the soil year after year by planting the same crop, community gardens are diversified and can be shifted and rotated to the needs of the neighborhood—one is unlikely to see a community garden planted fencerow to fencerow with “Roundup Ready Corn” for twenty years straight.

Local food production also encourages local small business: large grocery chains find it hard to integrate produce from local farms, meaning that small businesses are given a better chance of success because their products are unique.  A grocery store like Price Chopper (or even Whole Foods) is going to be much less adaptable to changing seasons and small producers; their supply chain necessarily demands large-scale and centralized production.  Community gardens provide an incubator stage for small producers—people interested in growing their own food can learn from seasoned veterans in a relatively low-stress environment before striking out on their own.  Access to agricultural knowledge is crucial to building a more sustainable food system, and community gardens provide a space for that knowledge to be transferred and gained.

Nonprofits like the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont provide a stepping stone between community gardens and small farmers by providing space for ‘incubator farms.’  There are community gardens throughout the area, but for those who are interested in turning their hobby into an occupation the Intervale Center lowers the barrier for entry by offering business planning, larger plots, and communal farm equipment.  Through their incubator program, over 40 small farms have started throughout the Champlain Valley, providing a not-insignificant amount of produce for the area.[1]  These programs go hand in hand with community garden programs, and prove that the establishment of community gardens is a solid step towards the establishment of a sustainable, local food system.