PAN: When and how did you stop using insecticides?
George: Insecticides always felt wrong. Every time I had to put an insecticide in the sprayer tank in my first year or two I just felt awful about it, so I decided to stop using them. My agronomist then convinced me to use an insecticide on some spring beans that were being hit by pea and bean weevil down in the fields on the furthest edge of the farm. There were two larger fields of about 17 hectares which I sprayed and a smaller field, separated by an 8-10 metre ditch, which I decided not to spray as a trial.
Initially, the plants in the sprayed fields had a spurt of growth but they were then hit by weevils again which required a second spraying. The smaller field had a slower start but then suddenly took off. It got over the weevils and ended up yielding higher than the larger fields. As soon as you start using these insecticide products you feel committed and locked in.
Last year, my dad berated me as we had a fair amount of barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) damage on our wheats. We actually lost a quarter to a third of a tonne per hectare across the whole farm. So not a small amount. But that will vary and, in my opinion, over a long period of time the general good you’re doing by not using insecticides – which I genuinely think are the very worst of the pesticides – makes this an acceptable balance.
I wouldn’t recommend doing it the way I did it. Start on the edge of your farm and work inwards. And don’t say you hope not to use insecticides, but rather that you will not use insecticides on those fields. There will be blips, there will be years when you have problems, but it will balance out. But make sure you’re also reducing your nitrogen. If you continue using nitrogen you will get bad problems with pests. (Note: nitrogenous fertilisers encourage rapid new growth on plants which attract aphids and other sucking pests).
PAN: What made you reduce your fungicide use?
George: When I was still growing second wheats (in conventional farming it is standard practice to grow two consecutive wheat crops, a first wheat and a second wheat), I could see that all the surface trash from the previous wheat was covered in Septoria disease spores. My agronomist kept saying I should spray and I had the chemicals ready to go, but my sprayer kept breaking down. I had already missed the opportunity to spray the crop early in the season and it was getting too late for the second scheduled spraying. However, when we walked around the field again there was still no sign of disease, or rust, or Septoria and despite having had rains which should splash that onto the leaves there was nothing there. Being zero-till and using a disc drill had made my plants grow more erectly. I’d also been farming without insecticides, which I think had also helped to make my plants stronger.
Again, it wasn’t a great strategy and I was pretty lucky, but my advice would be to really get to know your crops. Rather than just spraying them prophylactically, start checking on them every day if you have to, especially on smaller farms. You’ll start noticing if something is going on and if you want to then spray go ahead. But don’t spray just because you think you might need it.