Bugs! A sign that summer is here is the amazing diversity of insects flying around the farm. I’m anti-spraying, so the good, bad, and ugly insects have taken up residence at Dark Wood Farm. So far, I haven’t had to deal with much insect damage on the vegetables aside from flea beetles on my early radish, turnip, and mustard crops and some leaf miner damage to salad ingredients. I was able to mitigate some of the damage from these insects by using fabric row covers over the plants. This time of year, though, the fabric row covers can make the plants and soil too hot, so I’ve quit using them except for over my eggplants. Eggplants like heat, and they are a favorite food for lots of insects, mainly the eggplant flea beetle which turns eggplant leaves into swiss cheese in no time. The eggplants don’t like to be abraded by the fabric, so my dad constructed some wire hoops that Chris and I put over the freshly transplanted eggplants with the help of our workshare friend, Lisa. Now the eggplants are growing safe and sound under their little fabric hoophouse.
Lately, though, I have been wringing my hands as I see a new set of insects emerging. I’ve spotted my first few Colorado Potato beetles, known to defoliate potato leaves, and Japanese beetles, which eat just about every type of plant that I grow. By far, the insect causing me the most concern at the moment is the cabbage moth. This seemingly innocuous looking white butterfly (yes, it’s a butterfly and not a moth even though it’s called a cabbage moth) flits around my field looking to lay its eggs on any member of the brassica family it can find. This includes cabbages, kale, collards, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The eggs hatch into tiny little green caterpillars that eat their way through the leaves of the plants where they were born before they pupate and emerge as an adult butterfly. If you’ve ever found a little green “worm” on your kale or in a head of broccoli, this is the culprit! I knew I’d have some of these little guys on my brassicas, and given my 50% for humans, 50% for nature philosophy, I planted extra. My thought was, the cabbage moth caterpillars can eat some of the plants, and I’ll just harvest the nice looking, undamaged plants to take to the market.
So far, my “plant extra” philosophy has worked, but now the problem is that the cabbage moth caterpillars are everywhere! Really nice looking kale plants have little caterpillars hanging out on the leaves. Beautiful broccoli heads have little caterpillars hiding inside them. What to do?! I realize that most people don’t enjoy finding insects on their food, so I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I cannot guarantee that the vegetables I’m picking right now are bug-free. Any time I see an insect on my vegetables, I pick it off. I also vigorously rinse my vegetables before they come to market, which removes insect hitchhikers. But the truth is, that if you looked close enough, especially with the help of a microscope, you would probably find some kind of insect on the vegetables that I sell at market. Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you feel about that. Does it gross you out? I know I hated finding cabbage moth caterpillars on the kale I would eat from my family garden when I was a little kid. Since then, I’ve changed my mind about finding bugs on my vegetables. I’ve changed my mind because I know that it is impossible to grow totally insect-free vegetables without sprays. Whether it’s chemical sprays used in conventional agriculture, or even “organically accepted” insecticides like Bt (Bacillus thuriniensis) or spinosad, these products were developed to kill insects. While I don’t like some insects that are hanging out on my farm and eating my vegetables, I really like some of the others and don’t want to kill them. I have honeybees, praying mantises, ladybugs, and all kinds of other insects doing wonderful things like making honey, eating “bad” bugs, and pollinating my fruit and vegetable plants. Whether I like these insects or not, they are all part of a larger food web that is alive and robust on my farm. Take one piece of the web out, and there are bound to be unforeseen consequences. Also, what the heck is in those sprays and what do they do to your body if you ingest them? I mean, even the “organic” insecticides are made from bacteria in higher concentrations than you’d ever find in nature or they are some sort of engineered extract from bacteria or fungus. I figure, if I am afraid to put the insecticide directly in my mouth, I better not put it on the food I’m going to put directly in my mouth. The result of not using sprays, however, is that my kale *might* have a cabbage moth caterpillar on it when you buy it at the market. My collard leaves might have a few holes in them where a bug took a bite. Here’s the thing – eating a leaf with a hole in it will not adversely affect your health. Accidentally eating a cabbage moth caterpillar won’t adversely affect your health either. In fact, it’ll give you a little extra protein! The thing is, I don’t know what eating kale with insecticide on it is going to do to your health. I also don’t know what that insecticide will do to the health of the beneficial insects that live on my farm, and all the other creatures that eat those insects. So, I choose not to spray anything and let the bugs work it out among themselves while I keep myself busy inspecting kale leaves and pinching all the little green cabbage moth caterpillars I can find.