By JAMIE SEARS RAWLINGS
PRINCETON, Ky. — Betting that the practice could help reduce the need for pesticides, cereal crop growers in Europe have added stripes of wildflowers to their crops as part of several trial studies.
A recent article in The Guardian details one trial by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in England that saw growers planting strips of wildflowers measuring 6 meters wide in their cereal crops, or 2 percent of their total field area. A similar trial in Switzerland is using wildflowers such as cornflowers, coriander, buckwheat, poppy and dill to either ward off pests entirely or act as a barrier, preventing them from reaching crops.
Experts in this region of the United States, however, have doubts the practice would be beneficial to growers on a large scale, citing several potential drawbacks.
“One of the things that jumped out to me about the trial was that two of the species that they are planting in their strips, we would consider weeds in our fields here,” said Chad Lee, director of the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence at the University of Kentucky.
“There’s always a challenge of planting those, and now how do you contain them, not for the year that you plant, but for going forward, how do you keep those at bay? Whenever you deal with a biological system, and you’re trying to use a biological system to control pests, that’s always a year-to-year challenge.”
Management of the wildflower population is also a concern for Fred Whitford, extension specialist and director of Purdue University’s Pesticide Programs.
“You would have to make sure that if you planted wildflowers in there, it would also have to be managed,” he said, adding that his state uses wildflowers in state road right-of-way areas, with little success.
“We’re having a lot of troubles in the right-of-ways when we put these wildflowers in and they eventually take over. Those wildflowers are not going to be able to compete with the weeds, so I’m not sure what the point of the whole thing is.”
Most concerning, though, to Lee, is the potential for growers to forfeit a percentage of their total crop acreage.
“If you’re going to take 2 percent of your land out of production, you’ve got to guarantee that you can recover the cost of that percentage of your land,” he explained. “That’s essentially a 2 percent yield hit that you’re taking to implement that practice; you’ve got to demonstrate that that practice will generate more economic return than a timely application of a regular insecticide.”
Both Lee and Whitford agree that along with healthy crop rotation practices, implementing a thoughtful approach to insecticide use is the best approach to reduction in chemical use – a practice that is widely used in the region’s cereal and grain crops.
“The most consistent thing that works right now is a timely application of an insecticide or the use of something like Bt corn,” Lee said. “Those are the most effective right now, when used properly. Anything we try to use is going to have to be either as effective as those or much, much less expensive for growers to use.”
In his capacity, Whitford works with growers to implement a variety of tactics to fight pests without the overuse of pesticides or insecticides. These include determining the best time to make one chemical spray to reduce the need for a second, planting narrower rows to help develop a more solid plant canopy and determining which weeds could potentially attract pests.
No matter the determining factor, Whitford said the goal of the European studies is something that most U.S. counterparts he works with share wholeheartedly.
“You see growers trying to do everything they can to limit use because that’s a very expensive input, and whether you do it for expense, for the environment, for time or for all, everybody’s looking for a way to cut back,” he said.
“I would tell you that every farmer that I talk to, and every farmer out there, would like to limit their pesticide use. That’s not a thing of debate.”