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Consumers and chemicals: The battle for a balanced pest management system

The preference of your customers is changing and it’s important for your business that you’re aware of it

The feud between farmers and pests is a never-ending story, and changes in consumer preferences might force producers to look at new ways to battle their microscopic foes.

While farmers are in the midst of a constant struggle to protect their crops against bugs and diseases, at the same time consumers on a wide scale are asking for more products grown organically or with reduced chemical use. General Mills has recently announced stricter guidelines for producers selling grain products, asking specifically for lower use of synthetic chemicals.

The problem?

Unfortunately the delicious and nutritious food that we love to eat is also quite appetizing to insects and diseases, and right now our main methods for controlling insects and diseases in large-scale agriculture rely heavily on chemical control methods.

Talking with farmers throughout Manitoba I’ve noticed two very different reactions to this problem. While some traditional producers (farmers using fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) think consumers are simply wrong about what’s safe to use, other producers with similar operations think the products and practices will need to change as the consumers change what they want.

“We’re currently facing two problems,” said one of the farmers I spoke with over the phone.

“As farmers we have to control pests and disease on a large scale while making our returns, but as business owners we’re going to have to supply what the customer is demanding. If that means fewer chemicals, then that’s where the market will go. But I honestly don’t know at this point in time and if I did I wouldn’t say,” he laughed.

This particular farmer is a seed grower in the Brandon area. This topic is so sensitive in the farming industry that he asked not to be named for fear it could impact his business.

That didn’t stop him from sharing some inside perspective on how a commercial farm might adapt.

“In the end, agriculture is a supply-and-demand-driven sector and producers should always be ready for customers to change,” he said.

“Good or bad, it’s happening. It’s kind of up to us to adjust with the market. Down the road I don’t know if that’s us going certified organic or going for a reduced input strategy, but we’re all aware that there’s some adjustments we’ll have to make. I’ve seen some pretty interesting machines coming onto the market, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of people ditching chemicals for a more mechanic control-based approach.”

I asked him what might convince farmers to start looking at other methods to avoid losing access to customers over this issue.

“I think if we can show farmers with actual data that they’ll in fact be doing something good for their business by saving money, maybe polluting less and therefore saving some land quality… Things like that might convince people to look for other control methods. But it’s hard if all you’re doing is telling producers to simply ‘use fewer chemicals’ without expressing specifically why.”

Switches in consumer behaviour should be expected in any business, but this problem is truly unique to the agricultural sector. The consumers notice it, the farmers notice it, and the major corporations notice it.

So what’s actually being done, other than a vague warning from processors telling producers to use fewer chemicals?

Earlier this year at the Farm Progress Show in Regina I saw a few weed control options that could help farmers adapt to the coming changes.

One of them is The X-Steam-inator, a Zamboni-like unit invented in Saskatchewan that uses electricity-generated steam to kill weeds and terminate plant growth with zero chemicals.

Right now The X-Steam-inator is only a prototype and the manufacturers told me they’re doing more testing and calibrating this summer before starting their demonstrations to the public slated for next year.

The manufacturers also told me that it’s better designed for smaller areas and spot treatments rather than entire fields. The retail price hasn’t been set as of yet but they did tell me that right now it’s going to be an additional cost to the operation as it simply isn’t large enough to replace your larger boom sprayer.

Another product I saw at the show is The Vogels Wick Weeder. This product was designed in 1978 by Paul Vogels who built it for use on his own farm as an alternative weed control option.

Their flagship product The Wick Weeder is a long hollow PVC tube with either a rope or wool “wick” at the end that soaks up a small amount of chemical depending on your weed. Easy to use, you simply put the proper volume of chemical into the tube, lower it down to the weed and coat the plant with a thin layer of solution that comes from the wick. It’s designed to release very slowly and eliminates the worry of spray drift, leaching or oversaturation. The company makes small-scale sprayers for quads, UTVs and more to fit the different situations you might find weeds around the farm.

There are a ton of interesting ways for farmers to control weeds that don’t necessarily rely solely on chemicals and proper timing. Products like this might help producers switch to methods that save on chemicals and money, but it’s up to everyone in the industry to show why changes need to be made and remember that it will be a slow and steady process to see results that make (mostly) everyone happy.

About the author

Reporter

Spencer Myers grew up on a beef and grain farm in Belmont, Man. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Diploma Program and Red River College’s Creative Communications program. Adding to his on-farm experience, Spencer has worked as an agronomist-in-training at Zeghers Seed Inc. in Holland, Man., and a conservation technician with Ducks Unlimited’s Native Plant Solutions division. Spencer is currently based in Winnipeg.

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