Bringing IPM information to small-scale farmers is a significant challenge, but one that has many potential benefits - including expanded opportunities to spot invasive pests and diseases.
That's the conclusion of a Western Small Farm IPM Work Group that in 2014 completed a four-year project in six Western states.
"The biggest surprise was that in the three states that implemented on-farm pilot projects, we found the first recordings of various new diseases or pests,” explained Tess Grasswitz, one of the project leaders and the state IPM coordinator for New Mexico. “That was unexpected.”
But getting IPM information – and supplies – to small farms isn't easy, as the group discovered.
The project began in 2010 with funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a simple idea: to forge better connections between existing IPM teams and their small-farm counterparts in each state.
“The plan was that each state would conduct a needs assessment in the first year, then a small-farm IPM pilot project beginning in year two,” Grasswitz explained. “Three of the states in the project successfully implemented on-farm pilot programs: California, New Mexico, and Utah”.
California’s project focused on dragon fruit producers in San Diego County, while both New Mexico and Utah’s projects began with small-scale vegetable producers and expanded to include fruit IPM. The other three states involved in the work group, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, concentrated on different outreach activities.
“This was not a traditional working group, and we didn’t have a lot of meetings with each other,” Grasswitz said. “That was not the aim. Instead, we wanted interaction with the growers to learn how to better meet their IPM-related needs.”
Generally, the group found growers valued the interactions they had with the researchers and the IPM knowledge they gained, especially through the one-on-one, on-farm contacts.
The unexpected outcome was the discovery of several pests and diseases in locations where they hadn’t been seen before.
“In New Mexico, for instance, we found the first state records for spotted wing drosophila and a new cereal aphid (Sipha maydis) on pilot-project farms, as well as a new county record for bagrada bug,” Grasswitz said. “In Utah, they found various vegetable diseases they didn’t know they had, and in California, they found a new viral disease of dragon fruit.”
The team believes small farms – especially those in and around urban areas – are ideal places to look for new invasives for several reasons. First, because new pests seem to spread along major highways and trade routes, they’ll often show up in or near major urban areas. Second, because many small growers plant exotic crops (for local ethnic markets for example), exotic pests find themselves right at home.
“We think small farms are a potentially valuable network of new monitoring sites for these invasive species,” Grasswitz said.
While the on-farm pilot projects produced positive results, expanding on those successes is a logistical challenge. The work group members who conducted one-on-one events recommend local, field-based activities similar to the “Farmer Field Schools” often used for IPM programs in international development.
“The best way to help is to work directly with growers on the farm, but that gets very expensive very quickly,” Grasswitz said. “And most universities and extension services are strapped for cash already.”
Another barrier to IPM adoption by small producers is the lack of availability of IPM products in small quantities.
“In all the states with on-farm projects, we found IPM adoption hindered for at least one pest by the lack of appropriate pack sizes for small-scale producers,” Grasswitz said. “Examples of that included pheromone dispensers for mating disruption, organic pH buffers and several pesticides. We need to encourage manufacturers to address the small-farm market.”
One group member proposed the creation of small-acreage producers’ associations in each state to represent the needs of small producers and facilitate information flow between the farmers and IPM educators and researchers.
“Globally, the importance of small-scale farms and urban or peri-urban agriculture is huge,” Grasswitz said. “It’s important to continue to focus on it.”