Valley Bounty: Field Notes and Five College Farms
Jacob Nelson, Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 12, 2021.
Lots of things are edible. “Food” is usually what’s also desirable and socially normal to eat. As local farmer Mariana Lachiusa discovered, that makes “food” a matter of perspective.
Take the tomato hornworm. These voracious caterpillars defoliate an entire tomato plants in mere days, and there’s never just one. They also look very weird. In Lachiusa’s words, “fat, green, horned, spotted, three-inch-long Shrek-finger lookalikes, and the bane of every tomato grower.”
But one hot summer day, in a moment of heat-daze (or maybe clarity), Lachiusa decided hornworms could also be food. “I took those Shrek-finger lookalikes, coated them in some cornmeal, and fried them up golden-brown. I paired them with roasted green tomatoes, just a dash of parmesan…and I took a bite.”
“It was crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and that first one tasted…like a worm,” she recalls. “But the second one – that tasted just like a fried green tomato.”
Lachiusa, who currently works at Next Barn Over Farm in Hadley, shares the full story as part of Field Notes, a showcase of stories about local food and farming in western Massachusetts. Hosted by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), Field Notes is traditionally a live storytelling event where anyone can pitch a story, with a handful selected and developed for the stage. This year, the performance was instead captured on film and will premiere at the Northfield Drive-In on June 22nd.
For Lachiusa, hornworms transformed from foe to possible food in an instant. “I was really hungry,” she explains, “walking through the high tunnels, smelling delicious tomatoes, and I stepped on one.” It gooshed green under her foot. She first assumed it was a green tomato, and it made her hungry. “Then I realized, no, it’s clearly a hornworm. But thinking it was a tomato at first gave me an open mind.”
Yet leading up to that moment was a long relationship with this pest. It began on a local farm that was “just inundated by them,” says Lachiusa. “I was low-key traumatized by that experience, so when I saw them again at Astarte Farm in Hadley, where this story takes place, I thought ‘oh no! I know how this ends, it’s just the worst!’”
All farmers constantly manage pests and diseases that impact the health of their crops and profitability of their businesses. From one perspective, these are purely a nuisance that ought to be written out of the story. But both the plants we like and the pests we don’t are all central characters in a larger arc of evolution and ecology.
As Susan Sheufele of UMass Extension explains, “plants and their pests have been co-evolving for millions of years, so it’s usually not simple to figure out how to get rid of them.” With that in mind, there are a few main strategies farmers use to protet their harvest.
Some maximize control of the growing environment to exclude pests. Pesticide-resistant crops that allow for intensive chemical spraying, and sterile, indoor hydroponic growing, are both emblematic of this approach.
Others accept the existence of pests and work to minimize their impact while promoting plant health. A popular concept in this school of thought is integrated pest management (IPM). According to UMass Extension, IPM principles promote whole-systems analysis, careful monitoring and prevention, and the use of any control measures (chemical, cultural, or biological) with priority on minimizing risk to human health and the environment.
Most farms employ a mix of pest management strategies in different ways for different crops, and no one strategy is superior across the board. Just like the concept of “food”, it’s all relative.
Five College Farms, also in Hadley, offers one example of how these strategies are employed on the ground. Since 2016, they’ve grown organic heirloom tomatoes year-round in three acres of greenhouses that allow for more controlled conditions. Their tomatoes are sold at River Valley Co-op in Northampton and distributed regionally by Marty’s Local, Myers Produce, Wegman’s and Whole Foods.
In contrast to farming in an open field, their main greenhouses are partially closed systems with tomatoes planted in long troughs of soil. This allows them to capture and recycle water and fertilizer not absorbed by plants on the first pass and measure nutrient uptake by the plants with chemical analysis. Says farm manager Arthur Mulyono, “We want to know what’s in the water and the plants so we’re not just guessing what they need to stay healthy.” Healthy plants resist pests better.
They also leave each greenhouse empty for a few months so pests can’t get a foothold, and to recharge soil nutrients. “Every year we have a big clean out of each of the greenhouses,” says Mulyono. “We sterilize the facility and add beneficial insects and nutrients to the soil. If you put your hand into our soil, you get a handful of worms.”
All these methods place more control of growing conditions in Mulyono’s hands, but even still, pests will come. “There’s just different pests,” says Scheufele. “Things that thrive in a hot dry environment.” Mulyono mentions their biggest pests are white flies and russet mites, which Scheufele says are typical for greenhouse-grown tomatoes.
Growing certified organic tomatoes, Five College Farms doesn’t use harsh chemical sprays to manage pests, instead relying on a combination of natural pesticides and additions of beneficial insects that combat the pests. Mulyono says both measures are attempts to prevent rather than treat a major outbreak. So far these strategies have worked, but they aren’t cheap he says, costing the farm tens of thousands of dollars yearly.
Regarding tomato hornworms, Mulyono says Five College Farms has never had a major issue. For others struggling with them, there are solutions. Starting with the simplest methods, Scheufele says, “Most of the time we just recommend squishing them.” BT, a toxin naturally derived from bacteria, can also be used, and will target only caterpillars who eat sprayed foliage and nothing else, she says.
Really, the most effective control is not human intervention but the unpredictable arrival of their natural predator, a species of wasp that lays eggs on the hornworm and whose larvae, which look like little white grains of rice riding on it’s back, predate the beast. If you see an infected worm, leave it allow the wasp population to spread, says Scheufele.
Dealing with pests sounds complicated, and it is. That’s why UMass Extension and other university extension programs are here to advise countless local farmers. “Extension was established to bring research findings from land grant universities out to people who could use them,” says Scheufele, “and it’s meant to be a two-way street, with extension learning what problems needed solving to inform further research.”
“Our goal is to help farmers however we can,” she says, noting from her own experience farming that few farmers have the time or resources to research these solutions on their own.
Of course if all else fails, you could take a leaf out of Lachiusa’s book and try eating pests instead. If you do, she warns you may be on your own. “I offered to bring fried hornworms to our end of year crew party that summer,” she says, “and everyone was like ‘That’s a hard no. Please don’t.'”
Tickets for Field Notes at the Northfield Drive In are on sale now at buylocalfood.org/fieldnotes2021
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA