What’s happening on the farm this week? A whole lot of pest management. You may have noticed lots of farmers on Old Mission Peninsula roads with their tractors and sprayers. They are now spraying pretty much ’round the clock to keep the bugs, blight and rot under control in their orchards.
And if you step outside your door after dark, you’ll often hear sprayers humming in the distance. That’s because the wind generally dies down after dark, which means the spray is going exactly where it needs to go – on the trees.
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Read on for this week’s report from Johnson Farms, the Old Mission Peninsula farm that’s been in my family since the 1800s.
The Frost Report
How is the crop looking as far as frost damage? It really depends on where you are on the Old Mission Peninsula. There is frost damage in both sweet cherries and tart cherries, but there are also orchards with not much damage.
As mentioned in previous farm reports, however, the fewer cherries that are on the market, the better price farmers can get. So the silver lining of frost damage is that it might drive the price up.
By the way, if you’re out looking for blossoms, check out the blossom schedule here. I’ve heard people say the blossoms don’t seem quite as brilliant this year, and that might be due to frost damage.
I took this photo of sweet cherry blossoms a couple of days ago. That’s the “home barn,” north of Mapleton, in the background. Below that is a block of tart cherries starting to blossom, just to the right of the first photo.
Planting Trees and Vines
My brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, are still planting trees, with about 800 to go out of the 8,000 or so that are being planted this year. Also, Ward has about 2,000 Pinot Grigio vines coming, which will be planted by Agrivine, a farm management service owned by OMP residents Ben and Jen Bramer.
You’ve heard me rave about the Bramers’ Local Yokels farm stand on Center Road – which is now open! Last time I checked (yesterday), they had a variety of greens available, and I bet they’ll have asparagus soon, if they don’t already. Farm stands are starting to open up, so we’ll have an OMP Farm Stand Report coming soon here on the Gazette.
OMP Farmers who’ve traditionally farmed orchard fruit like cherries and apples are starting to plant grapes here and there, which are sold to local wineries to be made into wine. If you look at the tasting room info at Chateau Chantal, you will see Johnson Farms listed there.
This is from a couple years ago, so the acreage may have changed on some of these vineyards, including Johnson Farms.
How Safe Are Those Spray Chemicals?
As mentioned, farmers are now full-bore into spraying season, and you might be wondering how safe all those chemicals are. In general, the chemicals sprayed by farmers now are much safer than the ones sprayed in previous generations. Even just one generation ago, my dad, Walter Johnson, was spraying things like DDT and Parathion, just two of the old-school chemicals that are now banned in most countries.
Here’s a picture of my dad, Walter Johnson (standing), and his brother, my uncle Guy Johnson in the driver’s seat. I believe this is their Case DO tractor and sprayer, probably sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Current-day farmers still spray poison pesticides and fungicides for certain pests, blight and weeds, but they also spray things like the mineral oil my brother Dean mentioned in our farm report a few weeks ago. It’s basically a light mineral oil that smothers a pest known as San Jose Scale.
But chemicals are a way of life for farmers – at least, they are with the larger scale farming done by Johnson Farms, which now farms upwards of a thousand acres on the Old Mission Peninsula, both their own farms and other contracted farms.
Without chemicals, they can’t sell their fruit. If even one worm is found in a load of fruit, the buyer can reject not only that load, but possibly the whole orchard. Think about all the work that goes into one orchard. That’s a huge loss for a farmer.
Stay Out of the Orchards
Should you stay out of the orchards? The answer to that is a resounding yes, not only during spray season, but year-round.
Due to food safety laws, only farmers and farm workers are allowed in the orchards at any time. And even *they are required to sign in and out of their orchards while they’re working there. The reason for that is if any issues crop up with a load of fruit, the processors can trace it back to the source. So that innocent walk through an orchard by a neighbor can have serious consequences for farmers.
My nephew, Nic Johnson (my brother Ward’s son), is the resident pest management expert on Johnson Farms. He explained to me that the Restricted Entry Interval (REI) is a very big deal. This is the amount of time that must elapse before someone may re-enter an area that’s been sprayed with a pesticide without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
There is also a Pre Harvest Interval (PHI) on pesticides for the same purpose. “There are a multitude of other rules for people on the farm,” says Nic, “and most have to do with fruit safety and worker health.”
And there are massive amounts of regulations for farmers. “If farmers are found in violation of the various regulations they fall under, they may find themselves on the end of a lawsuit and may even have their pesticide applicator certificate revoked,” says Nic.
He notes that each pesticide has a label that gives guidelines on its use, safety precautions and disposal. And it is a legal document that can be used in a lawsuit.
“The label on pesticide containers is actually a legal document,” says Nic. “So if you go to a hardware store and pick up some hornet or yellow jacket spray, you’ll find a label on it, and that label is literally a legal document.”
Integrated Pest Management – A Better Way
Nic says that farmers target pest species that reach certain population thresholds using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices.
IPM is basically an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.
In short, modern-day farmers aren’t using super-toxic chemicals that kill everything in one fell swoop (again, like back in my dad’s generation). Now, pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and pesticide treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target pest.
IPM is a better way of managing pests, one that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.
There is a plethora of rules and regulations regarding pesticide application, and you can read more about it on Michigan State University’s IPM section here.
How Do Farmers Know What to Spray For?
“We know which kinds of pests to spray for dependant on the number of growing degree days that have elapsed and the weather conditions on the farm,” says Nic. He adds that they also use crop consulting services to monitor pest populations and send field reports to the farmers.
Also, to apply restricted use pesticides, farmers must have the proper certification or be under the supervision of someone who has the proper certification. On Johnson Farms, three people are certified – Nic, and my brothers, Dean and Ward. A handful of farm workers spray pesticides under their supervision.
Here’s a photo I took yesterday of Dean and Ward at the spray barn. I was pretty excited to get them both in the same place at the same time. And also excited that they actually let me take a picture of them.
Farm Audits and Documentation
As I mentioned in last week’s farm report, farmers have a number of audits and regulations they must comply with, including the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Primus, and the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Farms of every size, including Johnson Farms, are audited to ensure compliance. If a farmer is found in violation, they’re not allowed to sell their fruit.
Nic says Johnson Farms is also part of a voluntary program called the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assistance Program (MAEAP), a program that helps farms of all sizes voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. Here is the MAEAP sign on the “home barn” north of Mapleton.
Nic notes that for Johnson Farms, pesticide documentation includes a monthly pesticide inventory, as well as written logs designating what material is used on what day and time. They keep track of everything with spreadsheets, which are then input into an online service for their buyers, the fruit processors, to monitor for their needs.
Johnson Farms also keeps Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) on the farm in case of an emergency. “They contain the basic information on the pesticide to be used in case someone came into contact with it,” says Nic. “This information may also be found on the pesticide label, but it’s more user friendly on the SDS.”
Before I wrap up this pesticide management report, I want to note that MSU has a research station in Leelanau County called the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center.
Established in 1979, this center is an invaluable resource for northern Michigan farmers. They focus on a variety of things, including integrated pest management, horticultural production and handling, value-added processing, marketing and farm financial management practices for sweet and tart cherries, wine grapes, apples, plums and hops.
They not only offer leading-edge research on cherries and other fruits, they also disseminate state-of-the-art information to the Michigan fruit industry and the public. Read more about the research station here.