This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
I’ve been learning some hard lessons about pests and heat, and we’ve been saying “it’s always something” to describe the reality that every year there is a different pest or problem to deal with. I’ve been thinking about how evolution designed different insects and creatures to fill unique niches. I’ve always tended to see this as a factor of plant-insect or plant-animal interaction, but I’ve been focusing on it more in terms of the unique climatic conditions of a given season. In a sense, it really is “always something” because the conditions will always be right for extreme growth of one pest or another.
I’m realizing that if I expect there to be issues, then I’m more vigilant in finding them and more capable of dealing with them without becoming overwhelmed. We all know the saying “hope for the best but be prepared for the worst”, but I tend to look more on the bright side with broad strokes that avoid the fine details. Crops can look amazing from 30 feet away but upon close inspection major damage can be visible.
This past week was a litany of troubles, with ground squirrels eating the first flush of tomatoes (I don’t mind sharing but instead of eating a whole tomato the little fuckers go down the row and take fat bites out of all of them). I lost a whole row of paperpot lettuce seedlings to the same pesky rodents, but I started setting traps with cat food and have caught 3 in the last couple days. The lettuce losses impacted my sales and ability to donate to food bank, but I’ve resolved to trap like hell and to plant under insect netting for the next successions.
Harlequin beetles have started really affecting the big brassica even though they’re under insect netting, and we’re seeing more grasshoppers than we have in years. Spider mites are much heavier this year as well, already starting on the beans and in the light dep tunnels. Pests are part of farming, and how we manage them has a lot to do with the success of our operation.
My friend said the other day that “this is the year of the spider mite”, and it got me thinking about how over the last few years there have been explosions of russet mites, bhang aphids, grasshoppers, powdery mildew and botrytis at various times. Seasonal weather conditions will create space for opportunistic pests or diseases, and our Integrated Pest Management responses have a lot to do with whether or not we weather the storms.
We focus on fostering wild spaces within the garden that hold biodiversity and a wide variety of plant species that support beneficial insects and pollinators. Rapid rotations of crops keeps pests confused, and we focus on growing healthy plants in living soil so that they can withstand pest outbreaks. Compost teas that inoculate beneficial microbes help as preventatives, with the use of spraying as a last resort to target pest outbreaks. When the grasshoppers got bad this spring we steeped garlic and cayenne peppers and sprayed a dilute solution on the young cannabis plants to make the leaves less palatable.
The heat is also teaching me some hard lessons as I am still working to become accustomed to the paperpot transplant system. I lost most of two plantings of beets, salad turnips and herbs because I didn’t plant them deep enough, and I’m realizing that I should have covered them with shade cloth until they got acclimated. Crop loss is inevitable in farming, but it always hurts when it happens and can leave me feeling dispirited.
On Thursday I was harvesting for market and CSA and feeling bummed because there wasn’t much to pick. The summer crops weren’t really coming in yet and the spring crops are pretty much gone by the wayside and I was stressed about meeting my orders. I went out to the hoophouses to check for tomatoes and lo and behold found a couple cases of them (along with another couple cases of damaged ones) and also realized that the cucumbers were going full bore and had snuck into their harvest window right under my nose.
I remembered then that the same thing had happened last year; bummer Casey moping around thinking there wasn’t a good leader crop for the week when I realized the cukes had come in. I said to myself then, “I should remember that in mid-July when I’m feeling down about harvest, to go look at the cukes”. I forgot this time but I think by next year I’ll remember! As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!