Can't You Just Spray?

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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This was the question that my neighbor Ken asked me
recently. I had just told him about the bugs eating my berries. “Can’t you just

So how’d you spend your weekend? Road trip? Shopping?
Reading at the coffee shop? I spent a recent weekend here on my knees cutting
garlic scapes and squashing bugs. And I mean a lot of bugs. Not that I’m
complaining. It’s just an observation on how humans have so many choices
available to them. I love my choice of living in the country and trying to
generate an income growing good organically.

This can be a very discouraging proposition. Early in the
season I am overrun with cutworms, a caterpillar that lives just below the soil
surface and takes out plants when they are small and vulnerable. In many years
they have completely decimated certain crops. This year I had about the usual
amount of damage, which I’ve grown accustomed to.

Each year something new always comes along to keep things
interesting. Last year our raspberries did fabulously well with very few pests.
This gives you a cocky sense of complacency. “Oh raspberries? They’re so easy
to grow organically!” NOT! Well not this year anyway. I have an unholy
pestilence of “scarabs” this year and they are trashing my berry plants in big
numbers. I first noticed them on my blueberries. My beautiful blueberries with
lush green, shiny leaves. I was watering and noticed some of the leaves were
damaged. Upon closer examination I noticed the scarabs. 

Scarabs are nasty little pests that will take out the berry
flowers and young fruit, or just chew on leaves. You can see in the photos what
a leaf looks like after the scarabs have chewed on it. While it may look like a
lovely lace pattern, this damage severely restricts the plant’s ability to photosynthesize
and convert that wonderful sunlight into energy to be used in the biomass of
the plant. Left long enough they’ll denude the whole plant and it’s game over.

So I spent the weekend on a hunt and squish mission, going
over each of my berry plants numerous times. Their natural defense is to drop
off the plant when disturbed so I go after them with one hand and put my other
hand underneath to catch the ones that drop off. And they can fly, so I have to
pick the ones out of midair that take off. Later in the weekend after I had
removed the worst of the infestation, I began shaking the plant stalk and most
would fall on to the ground where I eliminated them. You have to work fast
though, because some will scamper under debris and hide while others will try
and get airborne to fly away. Oh it’s a barrel of fun.

I noticed that scarabs are a big part of Egyptian artwork.
You see them used extensively on jewelry. Come on ancient Egyptians, what were
you thinking? Scarabs? Really? They’re obnoxious! They’re eating my berry
plants. And you want to immortalize them on jewelry? Interesting that the
scientific classification of scarabs is the Class “Insecta”, Order
“Coleoptera”, which looks like Cleopatra to my dyslexic brain.

We’ve had problems with scarabs on our peonies in previous
years, but this is the first year they’ve ever gone after the berries like
this. If I had just left them they would denude every plant and I would have no
berry plants next year. This may be cyclic, they may not be as bad next year,
or they may be worse. Essentially I’ll have to make a mental note to keep this
time of the year clear to deal with them. Problem is, there is no spare time at
this time of year. We haven’t had much rain lately, so I am watering full time,
and trimming garlic scapes (which is a full time job with 10,000 heads of
garlic) and I’m still finishing up some planting. Oh and weeding. So
essentially it just means in the gardens by 6 a.m., out by 8 p.m., with lots
left undone.

So when Ken asked “Can’t you just spray?” the answer of
course is “Yes, I am physically capable of purchasing a pesticide and nuking
them.” The question is, do I want to? Do I want to eat diazinon or whatever
pesticide would eliminate them? My berries are well formed now. Anything I apply
will leave a residue on the berries I eat.

A lot of the organic control methods seem to deal with
eliminating pests like these in the larva stage when they’re grubs. But I have
to wonder even if I applied a beneficial nematode within a reasonable distance
of all my gardens, would it eliminate them? They can fly. So I’ll always be
exposed to them from the surrounding area.

Which brings me back to the task at hand. Spending many
hours inspecting my plants and squishing scarabs. There is no question my time
would be better spent here at this computer creating eBooks to sell, and taking
that money and buying berries grown by someone else. But at this stage of my
life, that seems like a copout. This is what I want to do. And I need to stick
to my principles of growing organically. It’s a stupid amount of time. But it
gives me lots of time to think. And here is the conclusion I’ve come to.

  1. The world CANNOT feed 7, or 9 billion people using organic
  2. We’re running out of easy, cheap oil and gas, the basic
    building blocks for modern chemical agriculture used in the “green revolution”
    that has allowed us to feed 7 billion people today.

The result of my conclusion is not a good one, but one I
think most of you can figure out. Ultimately food will be more expensive. And
it will be in short supply, certainly at various times of the year. Hence the
need to eat strawberries in June until you’re so sick of them it takes another
11 months until you’re ready to feast on them again.

And if you can find a local organic farmer selling her wares
at the farmers market, make sure you not only patronize her, but also thank her
for her efforts. If anything just thank that farmer for not giving in to the
impulse to spray. I understand the impulse and if I was trying to grow on a
large scale and earn my income from only growing food I’m not sure I could make
a living if I didn’t.

In the meantime I’m going to try and train the chickens to
eat scarabs faster. They seem to take their sweet time eating them, which gives
some of the scarabs time to fly away. And once I’ve caught a scarab once, I
have no desire to have to do it again.

Photos by Cam Mather, with the exception of the Egyptian Scarab which is from WikiCommons.

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