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Farmscaping and IPM: Benefits accrue but are difficult to measure

Because of their potential to increase the number of natural enemies, farmscapes can be beneficial to an IPM program, but it’s difficult to measure how much, according to a recent article in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management.

Farmscaping is an ecological approach to farming with the purpose of increasing the presence of natural predators and beneficial organisms. The approach involves diversifying plantings to include ornamental or non-cash crops, living mulches, fence rows or borders, or island patches of grass within a field.

University of Minnesota entomologist Christopher Philips and his co-authors explain how farmscapes work and how they can be used to boost biocontrol in an IPM program. However, Philips states, because the nature of farmscaping involves diversity, using a standard economic measurement to assess economic savings is difficult to do for farmscaping as a general practice.

Farmscaping first gained interest in the 1960s and was more clearly defined in the 1990s when Pickett and Bugg gathered research articles highlighting biological control based on habitat management. The premise behind farmscaping was to enhance biological pest management by providing habitat or resources for biological predators. There are two ways to do that: top down and bottom up.

Top down approaches are intended to increase populations of natural enemies, while bottom up approaches are supposed to draw pests away from the cash crop. Bottom up practices include intercropping, trap crops, companion plantings and living mulches; while top down approaches may include plants that provide nectar or plants that are forage or habitat for predators like spiders or parasitoids.

Choosing alternative plants to include in a farmscape depends on the benefits they provide, and Philips suggests including plants that will provide multiple benefits. Beneficial plantings include grassy “beetle banks,” native grasses that attract arachnids, or trees that can harbor natural enemies or serve as an alternative food source for pests. Native plants are not necessary, but the planting should not need control in and of itself.

Although research has proven that various plants will improve natural enemy abundance, little has been done on the relationship between predators and pests.

“Researchers believe that increases in natural enemy abundance will translate to higher levels of pest control; however, this may not always occur,” states Philips in the article. “Farmscaping is often credited for reduced pest pressure, but few studies have thoroughly investigated this claim. While there is no doubt that farmscapes attract natural enemies, how these predators and parasitoids interact and move remains unclear.”

Choices of plantings depends on pests in the areas, so costs for farmscaping can vary quite a bit. Seed mixes do exist, say the authors, but they can be expensive. In addition, plant varieties in seed mixes can be unknown, leading to a possible weed problem later. Other factors involved in cost measurement include shrub and tree transplants, irrigation, herbicides and labor. In one estimate of hedgerow planting, the general cost was $3,614; however, that total can vary depending on other factors like the type of soil, climate and amount of irrigation and other inputs needed.

Although the benefits of farmscaping to the farmer are difficult to measure, benefits to society and the environment may be easier to communicate. The reduction in pesticides used leads to a safer environment for the applicator and for non-target organisms. Farmscape plantings often lead to better water quality, erosion control, sediment retention, nutrient cycling and genetic resources. Although these benefits are difficult to measure from an economic standpoint, they nevertheless contribute to two other goals of IPM: to reduce the risks of pest management strategies on the environment and on human health.

Research has shown that farmscaping attracts and conserves beneficial insects, and that predators and parasitoids reduce pest populations. However, more research is needed to quantify cost savings and to evaluate whether predators attracted by farmscape plantings play an important role in pest suppression. With definitive research, the authors argue, farmscapes may become an important tool to improving IPM programs.

Source: Phillips, C.R., Rogers, M.A. and Kuhar, T.P. (2014). Understanding farmscapes and their potential for improving IPM programs. J. Integ. Pest Mngmt. 5(3): DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1603/IPM13018

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