Posts Tagged ‘ pesticide-free ’

Issue 82: IPM Practices for Outdoor Growers

May/June -2005
Author: Michael O’Dea

Following a cancer scare, MICHAEL O’DEA moved to south-east Queensland where he established an eco-friendly, outdoor hydroponic facility, adopting IPM practices and biocontrols to grow pesticide-free lettuce, herbs and Asian greens for the health food market. His story first appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses. Here, the grower gives us an update.

Well, 10 months later;how did we go? What were our goals and did we achieve most of them? To answer the first question, it is necessary to review our objectives, which are best summarised in an article authored by Dr Porter and published in Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses (Impact of Global Market Drivers, Sept/Oct 2004). This article highlighted a number of issues that will influence future food production practices worldwide.

In his article, Dr Porter said that in the future, food will be produced using very different technologies than are used today. “Public concern over food safety (particularly chemical residues) and environmental flow of pesticides and nitrates into the environment are having a huge impact on crop production systems,” he said.

Dr Porter pointed to water conservation and water use efficiency as other major problems facing the world and, of course, is a major issue here in Australia. He also points to energy audits on production and anti-GMO sentiment as market drivers that will force growers to conform to stringent quality assurance guidelines to meet food and environmental safety standards;standards that are already embraced by many northern European countries. “In the next decade, ‘clean and green’ will mean zero pesticide residues in food and will require proof that crop production practices do no harm to the ecosystem, otherwise growers will face the prospect of environmental tariffs,” Dr Porter said.

We figured that people have to eat and they will want nutritious, pesticide-free food. We attended a nearby Saturday morning grower market on the Gold Coast for three weeks and we sold out of our product very quickly. The consumer reaction to the pesticide-free, no soil organisms, no herbicide concept was really positive, and it gave me a chance to explain to customers that we were not organic, but a viable alternative.

Unfortunately, the other growers didn’t see it that way and complained we had taken a lot of business away from them (which was true). The market organisers decided to listen to these growers;not the customers. We were not invited back.

Marketing-wise, a lot of what we did was guesswork. We knew we could grow a good product because we had undertaken formal training at Burnley College, Victoria, and had 20 years experience as commercial growers. What we did not have was knowledge of the varieties the market wanted, which meant we wasted time growing the wrong varieties. It also took some time to grow the right crop to suit the climate. We are still learning. As Rick Donnan has said many times in his column, Reader Inquiries, hydroponic technology represents only 10% of skills required to grow a marketable crop;the other 90% is based on knowing your crop and having the growing skills.

We now deal with a wholesaler at Rocklea Market, Brisbane, and a supermarket chain. We also supply restaurants direct. In a way, that suits me fine as we no longer spend all day at a market, which can be time-consuming.

The majority of hydroponic growers know how efficient hydroponic systems are in terms of water and fertiliser use. In our case, we use 700 litres of water to produce $100 worth of produce as opposed to the scandalous 750, 000 litres of water to produce $100 worth of rice. As well as the usual fertilisers, we add in our own organic ‘herbs and spices’ to get optimum crop health, and we do not dump water every so often.

We use town water which is chlorinated. Our water quality is atrocious and hovers around EC 0. 8-1. 2 – the water contains a lot of dissolved solids. In spite of the handicaps, we still produce an excellent product.

Our water and fertiliser costs are small. There is also no run-off into the environment – we recycle the water. If we need to bleed solution, we irrigate fruit trees and potted herbs.

Hydroponic and greenhouse growers have many advantages over traditional soil growers. I can’t see why hydroponic growers need GMOs, because we do not need to weed, and we can spray on friendly Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to aid in controlling a number of harmful insects, if we need to. We do not need to use ozone depleting methyl bromide – our production level per sqm is far higher than can be achieved by growing in the ground. We use very little in the way of pesticides, and hydroponic growers are allowed organic inputs, such as Eco Oil and soap sprays to counter insect pests and diseases. We grow our crop in polyethylene channels;we do not use PVC.

In Europe, especially in Scandinavia, many crops are grown hydroponically without the use of pesticides using biocontrols to keep pest problems in check. Water and nutrients are also recycled.

Our objective at the Squeaky Green farm is to avoid the use of toxic chemicals on the vegetables we grow to give consumers a pesticide-free product. To achieve this, we use biocontrols to keep most of our pests under control. We release hypoaspis predatory mites every fortnight to keep fungus gnats and thrips under control. We were given some rove beetles ages ago by Biological Services in Loxton, SA, to control fungus gnat, thrips and shore flies, and we still see these beetles in the media when we are working around our crop. We keep a constant look out for pests in the crop and eveyone who works at Squeaky Green monitors the crop for pests and beneficials during their work routines. A daily record is kept of the status of the crop, where beneficials are released, and where pests are found.

Because we use friendly bugs, they put a constraint on what we can use in the way of sprays. If we have to use sprays, then they have to be biorationales. We did start off by using pyrethrums, which are an allowed organic input, but we found it tends to knock off beneficials as well as insect pests.

We have found we get a very good influx of aphidius parasitic wasps to control aphids (Myzus persicae). We also get a variety of ladybird (Hippodamia convergens) that feed on aphids. We are exploring the possibilities of growing banker plants to keep a population of parasitic wasps on hand.

We have found ants are our biggest problem – the ants farm the aphids for their honeydew secretions. We use boric acid and sugar as a bait, and greasing around the legs of the tables tends to keep the numbers down.

As far as the aphids are concerned, if we keep a careful eye on our Asian veggies, we know where the aphids are and we can get rid of them by spraying them with Eco Oil. I only use a small pack to spot spray hot spots. We did get some large brown aphids (Uroleucon sonchi) on our lettuce in the winter months, but they seemed to disappear by spring.

We also release green lacewings fortnightly and they do a great job of cleaning up anything they can get their fangs into; including my arm.

Micheal and Jant O’Dea inspect the crop for pest.

I have seen a few whitefly on our sticky traps, but numbers have never increased, so maybe the lacewings are eating any nymphs. We have a resident population of brown frogs in our flood and drain trays.

I think our worst problem is going to be Rutherglen bugs (Nysus vinitor) in late spring/early summer. We struggled with them in 2004. Many conventional growers have the same problem. Complete exclusion is possible but it restricts the air flow around the crop too much. Has anyone got any help on this topic? I have talked to a number of entomologists in the IPM area and they all tell me Nysus vinitor is very hard to control biologically, as are mirrids, another sucking insect. I do have some strategies in mind, such as growing a trap crop which I can use to attract the bugs away from our veggies.

The Vortex Bug Bin light trap is most effective inside the netting

Lepidopterous caterpillar pests are not a problem for us as we use netting, and we also use a Vortex Bug Bin light trap. We started off by putting the light trap inside the netting, but we have since moved the trap just outside the netting. This device has proved invaluable to us because it traps so many bugs. I do not know all the bugs it traps but I did have a talk to Dr Richard Drew at Griffith University, Qld, who has worked with the light trap. He is enthusiastic about its ability to trap bugs of the crop-eating kind.

This innovative product has enormous potential in many areas of crop production including vegetables, turf, macadamias, lychees, cotton, and anywhere where the Coleoptera beetle and Lepidoptera caterpillar are a problem for growers. Redlands nursery just outside Brisbane has used the Vortex light trap for four years and they say they could not do without it now.

According to evaluation tests carried out by CSIRO Entomology at the Australian Cotton Research Institute, Narrabri, NSW, the overall results of the Vortex light trap were positive. The data shows that Helicoverpa caterpillar densities were substantially reduced within and around the array of Vortex light traps. It must be stressed that this work only involved two fields over part of a single season. Such unreplicated experiments require cautious interpretation because other (unknown) factors could contribute to the differences shown. The CSIRO study showed promising results, but it also highlights the need for careful evaluation in the future.

The Squeaky Green farm specalises in pesticide-free Asian herbs and lettuce.

‘Clean and green’ will mean zero pesticides in fresh produce with no harm to the environment, and some kind of proof to show that these standards are achieved. Labels on food to indicate that it is produced in a sustainable way is one way to demonstrate proof. For example, in Belgium, over 2,000 growers market under the Flandria label, where the motto is ‘Quality Vegetables – Approved by Nature’. In Australia, Freshcare does address grower accreditation to some extent.

So far, we are not really emphasising the fact that the Squeaky Green farm is pesticide free. I need more time to find out how far into the season we can go with no pesticides. We have had to use azoxistrobin to treat small amounts of septoria and pythium.

We use a bio-friendly trichoderma fungi in the water to suppress disease organisms and it appears to work really well. I have a microscope and I can diagnose the most common fungal pathogens by the shape of the spores. On the subject of diagnosis, I use a 12x magnification lens, which I bought off my optician, to identify insect pests and diseases.

We had a touch of albugo (also known as white rust) on the Asian greens. It only appeared on one plant variety and we have stopped growing this crop until the weather conditions are no longer conducive to the disease.

Our quality has been excellent all the way through the season and we have gained sales by having a better quality product than the ground growers. By the end of the year, in time for summer, we will have 5,000 sq. metres of production area.

What we do need is like-minded growers to try and achieve ecologically sustainable standards and to put together a label that consumers will recognise.

For soil growers, there are some encouraging technologies being used to conserve water and nutrients. Dr Richard Stirzaker from the CSIRO has invented a soil probe which enables ground growers to monitor nutrient usage where water is in the soil profile. The device is called FULL STOP and can be used to give precise water and nutrient doses. Mulch techniques have also been developed to avoid disturbing soil profiles. By growing a cover crop, the resulting problems of bare earth can be avoided.

It is up to us as growers to start to implement sustainable growing systems, and here at Squeaky Green, we have a lot of answers to the problems we have experienced so far. It would be good to get some kind of Internet chat room going for likeminded growers.

I would like to thank my wife Janet and daughter Nicola for helping to achieve our goals. Without their eagle eyes, we would not be able to be Squeaky Green.

For further information contact Michael O’Dea at email:

Issue 73: Retail Industry Reforms

November/December – 2003
Author: Christine Paul

The hydroponic retail industry has played an important role in the industry’s development, a wellspring for many of today’s commercial growers, and a supply network for many home gardeners who want to grow their own pesticide-free vegetables using water-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. However, hydroponic retailers need to change some of their business practices if they are to play an ongoing role in the future development of this economically important industry.

Hydroponic retailers need to change their language succeed in attracting genuine home gardeners. This and some of their business practices if they are to was the message delivered by Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) Vice President and Managing Editor of PH&G, Steven Carruthers, at the recent hydroponic retail workshops held in Adelaide and Perth. The workshops, the first in a nationwide series, were sponsored by the AHGA, which plans to introduce a National Code of Conduct and a Retail Industry Development Plan for hydroponic retail members.

The need for change
In the first part of his workshop presentation, Mr Carruthers traced the evolving face of the hydroponic retail industry in Australia. He said that in just over a decade, the market had grown from a handful of outlets to more than 400 specialist stores Australia-wide at its peak in the late 1990’s.

“In the early days, store owners focused on the home garden market, but as the retail industry grew, it became obvious it was also attracting a large cannabis-growing market,” said Mr Carruthers. “To a large extent, early SA and ACT legislation decriminalising cannabis for personal use, and rapidly evolving hydroponics technology worldwide, contributed to the explosion of stores, ” he added.

Today, Mr Carruthers estimates there are less than 200 specialist hydroponic stores Australia-wide with combined sales of around $120 million per annum at the retail counter. He attributes this market down-sizing to bad retail management practices and a changing legislative environment. “Hydroponic retailers are shop fronts to the industry, and they need to change their language and some of their business practices if they want to attract genuine home gardeners,” he said.

Mr Carruthers added that new legislation in SA, which makes it a serious offence to grow cannabis plants hydroponically, and WA where it will soon become an offence to ‘knowingly’ sell equipment that will be used to grow cannabis, is a serious wake-up call for all hydroponic retailers to change their business practices if they want to avoid further restrictive legislation.

“For the retail industry to grow and prosper, it needs to dissociate from its cannabis culture and promote its products and services to genuine home gardeners,” he said. “Changing the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail market won’t happen overnight, but the first step forward is through industry self-regulation,” he added.

Retail Industry Code of Conduct
Referring to key points in the SA Proposal to License Hydroponic Equipment Retailers (Report of the Review Panel: Executive Summary and Recommendations – January 2002), and the minutes of the Legislative Council of Western Australia Hansard (10/09/03), Mr Carruthers said both documents make it clear legislators in SA and WA want the hydroponic retail industry to work within a Code of Conduct.

“It’s something governments throughout Australia want to see – that is, industries developing Codes of Practice that minimise government regulations and administration costs,” said Mr Carruthers. “Not to develop a Code of Conduct in the hydroponic retail industry is to invite further legislation and business restrictions that could ultimately spell the demise of the hydroponic retail sector in this country,” he said.

The first item in the Code of Conduct proposed by the AHGA requires hydroponic retailers to undertake appropriate training and certification in the correct use, handling and storage of all chemical products, including pesticides and herbicides. Mr Carruthers warned retailers that the industry anticipates tightening of Federal and State legislation on the sale, handling and storage of agricultural chemicals that can be used to make explosives or for acts of bioterrorism, as well as compromise homegrown food safety and the environment.

“In the near future, we are likely to see new legislation that requires a permit and user identification to buy and sell agricultural chemicals, and industry members from growers to retailers will need to be certified in their safe handling and storage;not only because of terrorist threats, but also because of Occupational, Health and Safety issues,” said Mr Carruthers.

Mr Robin Moseby from Soladome Hydroponics was one of several retailers who welcomed the idea of training and certification in farm chemical safety. Currently, Mr Moseby is working on a suitable pathway for retailer training, which will be tied to units of competency under the National Training Scheme. He is planning a half-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, and which will offer a brief outline of farm chemical safety for a nominal cost. This will be followed by a full-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, but mandatory for supervisory staff, store managers, and store owners. This will complete the minimum certification required at a cost of around $250 per person. Mr Moseby suggested that the AHGA could provide valuable input to existing materials for further courses that can count towards a suitable diploma in hydroponic/horticultural management. It is envisaged that once a National course has been developed, it could be delivered to retailers in other States by other Registered Training Organisations under a licence arrangement for the use of the materials developed.

Legislative issues
In relation to items in the proposed Code of Conduct which prohibit products linked to cannabis cultivation being sold or advertised by member retailers, Mr Carruthers pointed to comments made by Mr Simon O’Brien (Lib) in the WA Parliament, which highlight bad practices in the industry. After viewing a retail product catalogue called The Growers Bible, the Shadow Minister for DrugStrategy said it refers to undetectable growing systems.

“Why would people need an undetectable growing system made to look like a refrigerator?” he questioned. “The catalogue is quite hilarious, ” he added, “in some ways because of the way its authors try to make it absolutely clear that they are appealing to cannabis growers, while at the same time desperately trying to disguise the fact. It is a curious contradiction, ” he said.

Mr Carruthers said the main threat to the SA and WA hydroponic retail industry is further restrictive legislation. He pointed to remarks made by Mr O’Brien in the WA Parliament about retail ‘cowboys’ who have no place in the industry, and deserve no consideration. “If the WA Liberals win government at the next State election, watch out for changes he initiates if nothing has changed,” warned Mr Carruthers.

“WA Labor may wait like the South Australian Government, but eventually more action will be taken in both States if hydroponic retailers do not take urgent action to reform their business practices, and dissociate from the cannabis culture.”

Retail Industry Development Plan
The second part of the workshop focused on common areas where a national network of hydroponic retail outlets could benefit the industry, home gardeners and the community, at the same time helping to turn around the public’s perception of the retail industry. Mr Carruthers told retailers that few organi-sations can succeed without a plan, and he recommended that retailers develop a Retail Industry Development Plan to take the industry into the future.

“A Retail Industry Development Plan could look at the concept of an annual ‘National Garden Safe Day’, for example, where a national network of hydroponic stores become collection points for garden chemicals, including unused pesticides, insecticides, and other out-of-date garden products.” Mr Carruthers said that many home gardeners are water wasters and major contributors to groundwater contamination in urban environments.

“One day they will pass a law banning lawns that are an unnecessary waste of water in this country,” he said. “It’s all very well pointing the finger at commercial growers polluting the groundwater as a consequence of fertiliser run-off;what about the tonnes of fertilisers and pesticides used on gardens in urban Australia, ” he added. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to educate the gardening public about water conservation strategies and safe gardening practices that don’t pollute the environment,” he said.

Mr Carruthers pointed to other issues where hydroponic retailers could take a leading role, such as collecting HID lamps which contain sodium and mercury, and plastic containers used to bottle nutrient products. He forecast that the day is rapidly approaching where manufacturers, retailers and consumers will need to pay an environmental levy to dispose of their waste packaging.

Mr Carruthers said that such industry initiatives are not difficult to plan and implement. Water conservation, groundwater contamination and pesticide use are issues that resonate with home gardeners and consumers more than ever. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to draw attention to these environmental issues, which are opportunities to turn around the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail industry,” he said

During the Adelaide and Perth workshops, and the rest of the planned workshops in capital cities around Australia, the message is loud and clear – it’s time for hydroponic retailers to re-evaluate some of their business practices and present a clean image of their industry.

“There is a large number of hydroponic retailers who supply a genuine home garden market, and I’m optimistic that these retailers will carry the industry forward to play an important role in the future development of urban agriculture using water-efficient and environmentally friendly growing technologies, ” said Mr Carruthers.

At the conclusion of the workshop, retailers were encouraged to adopt the proposed AHGA Code of Conduct, and to convey this and a Retail Industry Development Plan to their Parliamentarians at the earliest possible opportunity to demonstrate they are serious about reforming their industry.  Ω

PH&G November/December 2003 / Issue 73