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Archive | April, 2015

Meet an Eco-Farmer: Quail Hill Farm/Peconic Land Trust

Quail Hill Farm/Peconic Land Trust Eco-Farmers

Quail Hill Farm Summer Crew

Why did you begin farming?

I lived for a decade in Love Lane Cottage and Studio, Mousehole, on the Penwith Peninsula, Cornwall, England. When I learned that the cliff meadows, located at the end of our lane, were considered part of “the earliest ground in Britain,” how could I refuse?

Have you always been an eco-farmer, or did you make a change?

Always. As a child of the 1960s, not having been raised on a farm, I asked the most obvious question: Why would I disrupt the ecology of a place with substances I had no part in producing and with no knowledge of the long-term effects?

What was the biggest hurdle you have overcome?

Facing the conservative stance of an intransigent system — relatively new, yet in the grip of a powerful industry — and adamantly resistant to change.

What do you enjoy most about farming?

Sun, wind, rain, the texture of soil, late light brilliant on the hedgerows, the sound of the air reflected through a hawk’s wings, the miracle of a tiny seed able to produce a 12-foot stalk, and a flower and food as nourishment. I also admire the shine on the steel shanks of the chisel plow.
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Book Review: Chasing the Red Queen ─ The Evolutionary Race Between Agricultural Pests and Poisons

Chasing the Red Queenby Andy Dyer, reviewed by Chris Walters

It’s not often that satirical fiction offers a nearly perfect illustration of a scientific principle. Yet Lewis Carroll pulled it off in Through the Looking-Glass when Alice mentions to the Red Queen that running fast generally gets you someplace, at least in Alice’s experience.

“‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all of the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’”

For a while, as Andy Dyer tells it, agricultural chemistry — pesticides and herbicides — were able to run fast enough to produce earth-shaking results. Their success transformed the fundamental human activity of growing food. Then they fell behind, finally leading to GMOs and the rapid adaptations of pests targeted by biotech cultivars, a turn of events Dyer calls “utterly predictable.” When you’re talking about the evolutionary biology of crops, weeds and insects, you’re describing a zone where the Red Queen rules. Continue Reading →

Dealing with Heat & Drought

400px-Drought

by Dr. Ed Brotak

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts. Temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible. For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur.

What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred. In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

Natural Plant Toxins Aid Bees

Bee1webResearchers studying the interaction between plants, pollinators and parasites report that in recent experiments, bees infected with a common intestinal parasite had reduced parasite levels in their guts after seven days if the bees also consumed natural toxins present in plant nectar.

In this early and most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Dartmouth College studied hundreds of eastern bumblebees, Bombus impatiens, and their intestinal parasite Crithidia bombi, using eight separate toxic chemicals, known as secondary metabolites, produced by plants to protect themselves against predators.

The eight chemicals studied were nicotine and anabasine found in the nectar of flowers in the tobacco family, caffeine from coffee and citrus nectar, amygdalin from almond nectar, aucubin and catalpol from turtlehead flowers, gallic acid from buckwheat nectar and thymol from basswood tree nectar.

They found that these chemicals in nectar reduced infection levels of the common bumblebee parasite by as much as 81 percent by seven days after infection.

UMass Amherst evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler said, “We found that eating some of these compounds reduced pathogen load in the bumblebee’s gut, which not only may help the individual bees, but likely reduced the pathogen Crithidia spore load in their feces, which in turn should lead to a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease to other bees.”

She adds, “Because plants just sit there and can’t run away from things that want to eat them, they have evolved to be amazing chemists. They make biological compounds called secondary metabolites, which are chemicals not involved in growth or reproduction, to protect themselves. They are amazing in the diversity of what they can produce for protecting themselves or for attracting pollinators.”

Adler says results may have implications for growers who depend on pollinators, who may want to think about planting pollinator-friendly hedgerows and gardens containing plants that produce natural herbal remedies for some of the common parasites and diseases that ail bees and other pollinating insects.

“The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too,” she adds. “With so many people looking at bee health these days, it’s taken a long time for us to realize that perhaps we should be paying attention to how floral secondary compounds mediate pollinator dynamics and their interactions with pathogens. Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future.”

Commercial honeybee growers already use one such chemical, thymol, found in thyme plants, to treat mite infestations.

Findings appear in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.