September 1, 2009

Farming without the internet would really, really stink. The past two days are perfect examples of the degree to which free access to information has changed how it is possible for a farmer to solve problems. 

For years now I’ve seen that we have an ant problem….a somewhat large, kind of fast moving ant that always seemed to be where it wasn’t wanted….in figs, chewing peaches, even masses of them gnawing a rosebud. In the past I tried searching….."ant pests"……"ants on roses"….."ants in fruit"……but I got nowhere because I wasn’t asking the right question.

My attention has been diverted away from crops for the last few weeks due to a huge (for me) project I decided to take on, and this weekend I finally had a chance to survey the realm. What I saw wasn’t good….aphids run amok on the cucumbers and squashes and new melons, aphids making daily gains on the transplants that are the future of the entire winter garden……uh-oh. Either I do something, or I lose my plants and therefore my income for the months ahead….but what to do? I had a conversation with an entomologist whose aquaintace I made recently, and she suggested diatomaceous earth for the aphids, but in a solution to spray as opposed to a dust. I’d never thought of that….I’d only ever used the dust form. I searched "diatomaceous earth solutions" and learned that that the concoction can be made, and can work against whiteflies and spider mites as well. I also learned that aphids are attracted to high nitrogen levels. Ever wonder why aphids are present firstand in greatest concentration on the parts of the plant that show tender new growth? That’s where they have easiest access to the nitrogen they want, according to whatever site that was. Hmmm. And as I read more about aphid control, I blundered into searching "agricultural ant pests of California". Ah, the magic words… problem is known as the Argentine ant, and as it turns out they are aggressive promoters of aphid activity on all sorts of plants. One site had exhaustive information on how to correctly identify the ant under strong magnification by noting specifics about the ant’s jaw structure and "teeth"…..yep, it all matched. I took a second look at my transplants, and sure enough, there were the ants "farming" the aphids for their honeydew. I also learned that another common technique, spraying soapy water on aphids, needed modification. I read that optimally, the soap used should be a traditional lye/tallow soap. Dish soaps contain too many chemicals that can cause the plant to be burned by the spray application. I spent all day spraying diatomaceous earth on the vegetables I want to save. If I did a good enough job, in a few days I should turn around what threatened to be the death of most of my garden.

What would anyone do without that instant access to information? Probably, fail miserably, just like a hundred years ago when a grower had no help aside from his or her own experience. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t spend some time mining the Web for information. What fertilizers does okra need? Beans? Peas? Every crop one can think of? What are the best sources of those? How do you fix a broken leg in a chicken? What are the bugs ruining my grape leaves? Once I match the picture with the bug, how do I control them organically? What is the best way to store cucumbers? Should bees be fed syrup? The amount of things that a person needs to know are endless. As much as I love books and reading, we as individuals could never independently possess the wealth of knowledge available since the advent of the internet….the only source I can think of that perhaps exceeds what can be found online would be the library of a major university. We live in amazing times, just about everything we’ve collectively discovered is at our fingertips….if we know to ask the right question.

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