How mustard could be the 'golden ticket' to stopping potato pestThink all those bright yellow fields are canola? They're not.
Island farmers are growing about 15,000 acres of mustard this summer as part of an ongoing battle against the wireworm, a pest that cost the the P.E.I. potato industry $6 million in 2014.
"It's been one of our biggest battles growing potatoes here," observed Willem VanNieuwenhuyzen of Vanco Farms.
"For years it seemed like it was getting worse and worse, and it's a bit of a helpless feeling knowing there's not a lot out there that we can use to battle it.
"Hopefully this mustard is our golden ticket, that's kind of what we're all banking on."
'We buy with our eyes'The farmers don't harvest the mustard, but mulch it and plough it into the soil. As it breaks down, the mustard gives off a bio-fumigant into the soil that kills wireworm and other pests.
Wireworms live in the ground, beyond the reach of insecticides sprayed on the surface. The insects dig holes in potatoes as they grow, making them unfit for sale.
'We buy with our eyes and when you see a potato that's been damaged by wireworm, people just don't want to buy that.' - Dan MacEachern"It's been pretty substantial to the industry. We buy with our eyes and when you see a potato that's been damaged by wireworm, people just don't want to buy that," said Dan MacEachern with the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture.
Vanco Farms, for example, had one field last year that was hit hard by wireworm and cost them half of the crop. That's why Vanco has planted more than 2,000 acres of mustard this year in all the fields where potatoes will be planted next season.
Keeping an eye on the enemy"We're calling ourselves mustard farmers now because we seem to grow more mustard than anything else," joked VanNieuwenhuyzen.
Mustard doesn't generate any revenue but VanNieuwenhuyzen hopes it will pay off.
'We're calling ourselves mustard farmers now because we seem to grow more mustard than anything else.' - Willem VanNieuwenhuyzen"The potatoes we pack are expensive and wireworm damage is hard to pick out," added VanNieuwenhuyzen.
"We're hoping that the benefits of the next year's crop will justify this."
Vanco Farms also has a summer student monitoring traps in its fields that capture click beetles. Female click beetles can lay 100 to 200 eggs that produce the destructive wireworm larvae.
For VanNieuwenhuyzen, it's all about "knowing the enemy."
"I think we're seeing some improvements. I hope we're getting it under control. That's our goal and I think we're getting there."
Fields of goldThe amount of mustard being grown this season is up 25 per cent and MacEachern expects that number to remain stable.
"I don't see them decreasing any time soon — if anything maybe acres will increase a bit just because it's a nice, natural way to help improve the soil," said MacEachern.
The fields of bright yellow mustard have been attracting attention.
"The department has received a lot of calls this summer and they're inquiring as to why there's so much canola being grown on the Island this year," explained MacEachern.
"And it turns out it's actually mustard."
Fighting Wireworm May Save the Potato Industry
Wireworms are nothing but trouble for farmers. Voracious worms that feast on grain , fruit, grasses, root crops, and whatever else farmers have planted. The damage is usually enough to keep produce from being acceptable on blemish free supermarket shelves. Wireworms have forced some families to quit farming, costing others thousands of dollars. Depending on the species they emerge as click beetles every 2 to 5 years and can fly somewhere else to do extend their damage. So Petrie have you lost your mind??
It’s how farmers are being forced to fight wireworm that I find interesting, maybe hopeful. In Canada Thimet is the only insecticide that works, but after several extensions it’s supposed to lose its registration in 2015, with nothing in the pipeline to replace it. So farmers are being forced to look at crop rotations with brown mustard and buckwheat, which have proven to be quite an effective way to control wireworm numbers. The crops are cut and plowed under, not harvested, and release bio-toxins that kill and control wireworm populations. Here’s the thing. Thinking about crop rotations as a way to improve the quality of the “money maker” crop in the second, third or fourth year of a rotation is a welcome return to how farmers used to think about crop rotations. More recently, because farmers have been paid so poorly for table and processing potatoes, the second and third years of a rotation have to be money makers too, so soybeans, and corn have become popular rotation crops. They are certainly more valuable than barley or hay, but they’re harvested late with little chance for fall cover crops, and do little to improve organic matter levels in the soil. And I can’t think of anything that’s more important to reversing the negative cycle of nitrate and pesticide leaching, anoxic rivers, sedimentation, and now the growing need for irrigation, than improving soil quality. And that just won’t happen unless crop rotation is taken seriously, and rotation crops are viewed as ways of improving soil structure and health, not of keeping farmers from going bankrupt.
I had the privilege of interviewing many of the old hands in the potato industry, the movers and leaders through the 60’s, 70’s and 1980’s (the videos can be seen on the Youtube channel of the PEI Potato Board). They all worry about the brutal economics in the potato industry, prices they’d seen in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s while the cost of production has skyrocketed. Many worry about the shortcuts farmers have been forced to take to survive, the growth in farm size as farmers chase economies of scale. All worry about the future of the industry. Several spoke passionately about the crop rotations that worked for them. Yes, they’d say, there would be a lot of sod to wrestle with in the potatoes grown after a hay crop, but you had to do it to keep the soil healthy. Some talked about the importance of keeping cattle to have the manure to put back on the land. All accepted that if you could break even on a rotation crop, generate a little cash at the elevators delivering grain, that was fine, because it was the potatoes that had to pay the bills, and quality and yield came from good soils. These guys know what they’re talking about.
I’m not saying this is an issue on every farm, and these concerns are hardly new. The latest came from the group looking at the series of fishkills in Barclay’s Brook in West Prince:
“The Action Committee found that soil in some land
backing onto the Barclay Brook has low
organic matter levels as a result of intensive farm
management practices leading to a greater
likelihood of soil erosion and increased surface
runoff. The Action Committee understands
similar circumstances probably occur at locations
throughout the province making watercourses more
vulnerable to contaminated surface runoff.”
I really wish wireworm wasn’t the reason for farmers to think again about the proper use of crop rotations. Unfortunately wireworm is particularly fond of grass which should be an important part of rebuilding soil organic levels, but mustard and buckwheat are both good sources of organic matter too. All of this requires more research, some regulatory backbone to enforce crop rotation rules (including common sense and flexibility, increasing organic matter should be the yardstick), and big buyers like Cavendish Farms not counting on rotation crops to keep farmers solvent. They’re needed to rebuild soil quality, not backstop cheap potatoes.