Not all bugs are created equal. If you’ve ever been out to our farm for a tour, or even just spent a few moments visiting with us about the challenges of berry farming without chemicals, it is likely we’ve talked about good bugs and bad bugs. On many occasions I have talked with a young person about leaving the spiders alone because they are helpful in eating the bad bugs that eat our fruit and plants. We talk about honeybees and their importance to us in the production of fruit. We have bird feeders and bird baths to encourage birds to live on our property, to help us in eliminating the bad bugs…. even if it does mean they eat a portion of the fruit we grow. And we spend many hours contemplating how to outsmart those sneaky little insects that like to plague whatever fruit it is we are harvesting at the moment. Slugs… Asian beetles… wasps… they all live in nature, which ironically, is exactly where we need to be to grow fruit.
Six summers ago we began our adventure in the creation of Firefly Berries. We were blessed to have a kind and knowledgeable man available to teach us the ropes. We listened. We learned. We did our own research and sometimes came to new conclusions on how to manage the fruit that we grow. But there were many things that Lowell didn’t know yet and couldn’t prepare us for. In particular, the last couple of years have brought great struggles for us in terms of bad bugs.
First there came Spotted Wing Drosophilia (SWD) which have affected our raspberries most, causing us to downsize this year in order to better control them without the use of chemical insecticides. Many nights last year, after the customers left, you would find me in the raspberry fields picking the bad raspberries from the canes so that we could dispose of them and prevent any spreading of SWD. The kids and I would spend hours making, filling, hanging, and changing cider vinegar traps amongst the rows of raspberries. And so many times I wondered if this was all worth it… so much work. Truly, I began to understand why growers choose to spray chemicals. I get it. I really do. It is a lot of work to clean harvest raspberries… to pick bad bugs from plants by hand. It is so much easier to just take a chemical and spray it over the plants killing everything in its path. But easier certainly doesn’t mean better. When we choose to spray a chemical we also choose to put our good bug employees at risk. And sometimes that is a risk we are not willing to take.
My husband and I joke that each year seems to be “the year of …” something… fill in the blank. 2011 was the year of thistles and skunks. 2012 was the year of the drought. 2013 was the year of flooding. 2014 was the year SWD arrived in droves and the hard winter that completely eliminated our grape crop. 2015 was the year of a warm fall and a subsequent Asian beetle infestation in the vineyard. And 2016 appears to be the year of the late freeze & a large Japanese beetle infestation. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good things to go with the challenges, however, when you are standing amidst 640 grapevines all under attack by Japanese beetles you begin to wonder if perhaps we are going about this farming thing from the wrong direction. Could there be a better way of doing this?
I spent the better part of this morning and early afternoon at war… at war with the Japanese beetles. With a bucket of soapy water and garden gloves on my hands, I traversed out to the vineyard to pluck beetles one by one, or in some cases two by two or six by six. Two and a half hours later I was able to cover three short rows (totaling 90 grapevines), yielding me several inches of dead beetles in my bucket. Once inside the house and out of the 90 degree heat, I spent time reading and researching on possible options of ridding our farm from these annoying beetles. I found lots of articles, some with helpful information and some not so much… and it all got me to thinking. This is so much bigger than Firefly Berries. I don’t just mean the Japanese beetles… but rather how we choose to farm and grow things on a larger scale in America. This system we have here in our country is so much bigger than what we do on this small fruit farm, and that is what triggered me to write a blog entry.
When we bought this farm we knew there really was no money to be made in a small pick your own berry farm. We knew the expenses would be nearly as great as the income and the hours would be long and intense. We knew that not spraying herbicides would result in hours upon hours of hand weeding by ourselves and the few others we could convince to join us in this crazy adventure. But we also knew the importance of taking care of our planet… of working hard… of standing up for the little people or creatures… of leaving this planet better than we found it.
And here is where you come in… the customers who come to visit us at Firefly Berries. Whether you have been here once or many times, you have experienced the beauty of the land we call home and you have had the opportunity to see how things grow in the most natural way possible. What you may not have noticed were the many tiny weeds about to break out of the soil or the slugs lurking under the strawberries just waiting for their next meal. You may not have noticed the hundreds of thousands of honeybees buzzing in the clover fields, depending on us to keep their food source clean and free of chemicals. And hopefully you didn’t notice the weary look in my eyes, emotionally and physically tired from the daily responsibilities that I begin to wonder how long we can continue this adventure. But… it was there. It was all there.
I share this with you not because I want to impose any heartache or sympathetic feelings on you, but rather to spur you to action. You see… like I said earlier, this is about so much more than Firefly Berries. This is about how we live… what we eat… how we survive. One person, one farm cannot do this alone. We need to all be in this together. Relying on huge farms to produce all our produce is a recipe for disaster. At the grocery store we don’t see all that goes into growing that one tomato… even an organic tomato. The expenses are far greater than the monetary price tag we see.
But, where to begin? Many of our customers already buy local or shop at the Farmer’s Market, and this is a great start, but it is only the beginning. I do not claim to have all the answers. All I know is what is in my heart, and in my heart I believe the way to beat Japanese beetles and change our food system is to avoid monoculture, and to do that many more people must get involved in growing produce. At Firefly Berries we are working hard to diversify, planting smaller crops of more varieties of fruits and rotating crops to keep the soil healthy and the bugs guessing. When we plant large fields of corn or raspberries or grapes or whatever, we offer food to millions of sneaky little bad bugs all in one place, forcing farmers to make a choice between saving their crops or spraying chemicals. However, if each one of us grows just a little of what it is we like to eat, we spread the host plants throughout a larger space and it is much easier to keep a bad bug like the Japanese beetle in check. Handpicking bugs off of 50 grapevines is much more doable than handpicking bugs off 640 grapevines.
Of course I realize that not everyone has time to grow large amounts of food and I am certainly not suggesting this. I recognize that everyone has different talents and gifts which dictate what sort of job they are employed in and how much time can be given to growing produce. But, what if all of us who loved raspberries grew just five or ten plants? What if each of us who cherished the taste of a fresh ripe tomato took the time to have three pots with tomatoes growing in them? It may take some re-prioritizing, but I am confident we could make a difference. We could look beyond the immediate moment and see a future for this world that included smaller farms and more people growing food for their families… a future with fewer toxic chemicals filling our air and food because we chose to take control of that small part of our lives, to grow even one fruit or vegetable ourselves. Now that would be awesome!
Truth be told, I do not want to be a berry farmer for life. I truly believe in what we do and what Firefly Berries stands for, but I recognize that we cannot provide fruit for all of SE MN. Even if we wanted to grow bigger, there would be consequences and sacrifices. And though I am the first in the family to sacrifice comfort by donning a mosquito net hat and long pants and shirt in 90 degree weather to pick raspberries, I am not willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of honeybees or the health of the soil or this planet to provide more fruit for others. Instead I would rather encourage others to join me in growing fruit for their families… in working with nature instead of against it to produce high quality food that will nourish our loved ones and keep us strong and healthy. This, my friends, is a real long term solution.
And so, this is where I leave you. If you are a person who cares about the earth in a way much deeper than the superficial, and I know so many of you do… I encourage you to think a little more about the food you consume, where it comes from, how much work goes into growing it and getting it from the farm to your table. And then think about where YOU can fit into that chain. There are many battles that are fought to bring chemical-free food to market… and I encourage you to join us farmers in that battle. You can do it, really you can. There are many who would be happy to help you get started, and I would be the first to offer my experience and knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask or to try something new. Visit the library and read up on the item you hope to grow. Then start small. Grow a tomato in a pot or green beans on a fence. And then talk to others who are also growing things. There is great strength in supporting other like-minded individuals. We may not be able to completely eliminate Japanese beetles and other pests like them, but together we can certainly put up a good fight!