• News from our Elderberry Farm - September 2015

October 02, 2015

News from our Elderberry Farm: The Devil Among Us

It’s happened.

We experienced our first devastating crop loss. Knowing the trials that come with small scale, organic farming it isn’t all that surprising, really. But, even when you’ve mentally prepared for potential disaster, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game when it actually hits.

Perhaps “disaster” is an overstatement; “setback” might be more accurate. For what is a failure if not a learning experience, right?

Our 170 acre farm in Hartsburg, MO is nestled just short of a mile above the floodplains of the Missouri River. Boarded on one side by the Hart Creek Conservation Area, the land sits just up the creek from the large conventional farms that occupy the Missouri River bottoms. This year, we noticed a larger than normal number of Japanese beetles on the elderberry bushes, but didn’t think much of it. Only a few short months later, what was previously a heightened number of beetles became an all-out Japanese beetle apocalypse! There were hundreds of thousands of them, everywhere, covering the fields, the orchards, swarming the skies, and blanketing the elderberry bushes.

The beetles cause extensive damage to foliage when congregating in throngs in the summer months, mating and feeding on plants. Moreover, these insects are extremely difficult to control because they are an imported pest, and have few natural enemies and predators to keep their numbers in check.

Manual removal of the beetles is the most reliable method of de-infesting plants. But, because the beetles lay their eggs in the soil, it’s important that the pests be removed from the property entirely. In the early morning, the beetles are lethargic, and dew on their wings impairs their ability to fly. Knowing this, each morning we pulled on our walking boots, raked the infested foliage with some scavenged branches, and had our chickens feast on the falling pests. Homegrown solutions: 1; pests: 0.



Then, to our dismay, berries began dropping to the ground-- some fully ripened, others not yet ripe-- by the thousands. Upon closer inspection, we discovered they were overrun with Asian fruit flies, also known as the dreaded >Spotted Wing Drosophila. While other common fruit flies infest overripe or rotten fruit, this relatively new species is menacing because of its ability to infest healthy fruit. A new species to the United States, the Asian fruit fly was first identified in the US in 2008. Females of this species have serrated ovipositors (an organ used for laying eggs) that cut into healthy fruit and insert eggs. Once eggs are laid, there is no treatment as the larvae eat the fruit flesh from the inside out, causing berries to rot and drop. This explains the perplexing fruit deterioration we witnessed despite the plants themselves exhibiting strong health. Fortunately, the pests only affect the fruit that season; the plants themselves are not affected. That said, because we lost most of our berries this year, we are in the market for de-stemmed elderberries to keep our yummy goods stocked in your pantries!

Both the Japanese beetle and Asian fruit fly invasions were never-before experienced phenomenons for us. Our guess is that both were fleeing the pesticide sprays-- a toxic pest control method-- used by the conventional farms, and moving up river in droves seeking refuge. But, what do we know?

We aren’t the only ones suffering from this year’s fruit fly invasion. Two weeks ago, Florida’s agriculture commissioner declared a state of emergency to deal with an outbreak of fruit flies of a similar species. The outbreak-- the largest on record-- threatens 95% of Florida’s crops, and has prompted an 85-square-mile quarantine in the Redland, home to Florida’s tropical fruit groves and much of the nation’s winter crops. The outbreak will force many Florida farmers into bankruptcy as they simply don’t have the cash flow to sustain this kind of loss. For us at Norm’s Farms, we’re learning how to manage a sustainable farm in light of threats like these. And from 1,000 miles away? It's challenging, to say the least.

This is all to confide in you that we experienced our first failed crop. We were crestfallen, and dispirited. We phoned other organic farmers and many of them had similar experiences this year. But, as we’ve said before, when you are committed to growing food with restorative agricultural methods you need to be prepared to give some of your crop up to mother nature. In fact, we discussed this very thing with >Conscious Company Magazine in their recently published Norm’s Farms business review, which explores some of our sustainable agricultural and business practices within the larger picture of the good food movement.

So, yeah, this comes with the territory; it’s part of the process. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the journey, right?

See this NPR article for more details about Florida’s fruit fly catastrophe.


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