Scattered across the country, tucked away in university extension offices and government labs, a coterie of regulatory scientists are looking for ways to reduce pesticide use. They work for the government—specifically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and they’re here to help you.
Just ask Sandra Halstead. She’s the Agriculture Initiative specialist with the EPA’s Region 10 Office of Ecosystems and Communities in Prosser, Washington. From her office at Washington State University’s research station, she oversees a grants program that not only helps growers meet changing EPA regulations for pesticide use, but gives them a voice in the agency’s decisions regarding pest management. Grants her agency has funded include projects aimed at controlling pests like leafrollers, codling moths, and cutworms with environmentally friendly alternatives after the EPA eliminated or restricted tried-and-true pesticides—all while lowering a grower’s operating costs.
Halstead’s program is part of the Strategic Agriculture Initiative. It was created after Congress approved in 1996 the federal Food Quality Protection Act, a measure that set the EPA off on a mission to reduce the risks posed to humans by pesticides used in agriculture. That sounds good, but often new regulations mean valuable tools are restricted and replaced with alternatives that are either less effective or multiply a grower’s costs, or both.
The Strategic Ag Initiative, however, takes a different approach. Director Regina Langton said it looks for projects that can contribute information on sustainable practices to EPA’s regulatory process.
Projects funded by the program must be designed to show real, measurable results in controlling pests, protecting the environment, and improving the farmer’s bottom line. About 250 grants have been awarded since the project’s inception in 1998, she said. Nationally, the program receives about $1.5 million in funding annually. That money is distributed to the EPA’s ten regional offices, which then fund grants to researchers, grower groups, and other nonprofit organizations.
Halstead’s area, Region 10, includes Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, and receives about $250,000 annually. The grant process is administered for EPA by American Farmland Trust.
The money is aimed at minor crops, including tree fruits and grapes, and is distributed across the ten regions according to the number of acres planted to those crops. The Pacific Northwest is one of the largest regions, and Halstead has an impressive list of success stories.
There’s the Hispanic Orchardists IPM Education Program headed by Nana´ Simone in the Tonasket and Wenatchee areas of Washington. With a grant partially funded by the EPA, Simone, a consultant with expertise in pest management and fluency in Spanish, developed a curriculum for Hispanic orchardists that gives them the knowledge they need to assess both the presence of pests in their trees and the most cost-effective methods of dealing with them. The program is aimed specifically at Hispanics for several reasons—first, because there are few other Spanish-language resources available, and because Hispanics represent the fastest growing contingent of fruit growers in the state.
That’s an important piece of the initiative, according to Halstead. The Food Quality Protection Act recognizes that “we’re not protecting very sensitive populations like children,” she explained, so “we pay extra attention to crops that are important in the diets of children.”
Apples certainly fit that description, and growers in north central Washington are particularly important because data collected by the University of Washington show that children in agricultural areas are exposed to much higher levels of pesticides than children in urban settings like Seattle. The orchards, Halsted said, “are where these kids live. They work there, and they play there.”
The measurable results Langton refers to are often reported in dollars and cents. Orchardists who have enrolled in Simone’s program report significant cost savings because they have a good working knowledge of integrated pest management.
But success can also be tallied in the amount of pesticides no longer being sprayed on Washington’s farms.
WSU’s Dr. Doug Walsh, together with WSU Extension IPM coordinator specialist Dr. Holly Ferguson, in 2002 spearheaded a study titled “Cutworms Climb No More.” Growers had been laying down a strip of Lorsban, a broad-spectrum insecticide, between rows of grapevines where cutworms thrived. With grants from the EPA and other sources, they demonstrated that limiting sprays to just the trunks of the plants, and using a pyrethroid-based insecticide, which is less harmful to humans, is just as effective as the older method. Treating the trunks was enough to discourage cutworms from climbing the grape plants, and damage to the vines was eliminated. That’s good news from an ecological point of view. But factor in the costs—$15 per acre for the pyrethroid barrier spray versus $40 per acre for Lorsban—and growers sit up and take notice.
“This is universally accepted by the growers,” Walsh says. “They were so hungry for an alternative [to Lorsban] that this spread like wildfire. Within two years, we had complete adoption. We’ve eliminated 15,000 pounds of Lorsban, while creating a much safer place for beneficial insects.”
Because Halstead focuses on IPM, alternative methods of controlling pests like the use of beneficial insects get a lot of notice. The EPA helped fund a project conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU that put parasitic wasps in the orchard spotlight.
Led by entomologists Drs. Tom Unruh and Bob Pfannenstiel of USDA and WSU’s Dr. Jay Brunner, the team planted wild rose gardens mixed with wild strawberries near apple, pear, and cherry orchards, then seeded them with strawberry leafrollers, a cousin to the variety that can decimate fruit trees. Parasitic wasps found a happy home there, and by spring, their larvae, which had fed on the strawberry leafrollers over the winter, grew to hungry adults, just as a new crop of leafrollers that infest apples took up residence in the adjacent apple orchards. When the wasps moved in, the leafrollers were contained.
One of the most widely used programs to have received EPA funding is the Agriculture WeatherNet system operated by WSU. Dr. Fran Pierce oversees the project, which comprises some 120 weather stations spread across the state. The data collected at the stations let growers plan their pest management strategies, and other decisions like controlled irrigation, with pinpoint accuracy.
“If you live in Cowiche, up in the hills where it’s a lot cooler, you wouldn’t want to use the weather information from Grandview” when deciding when to spray for codling moths, Halstead explains. “It gives growers an understanding in real time of how weather data can impact pest management.”
The American Farmland Trust issues a request for grant proposals each year, and typically receives between 10 and 15 applications. Successful grants are those that use innovative and collaborative methods to change the behavior of growers and provide good measurements of their effectiveness, according to Ann Sorensen of American Farmland Trust.
“Any project that helps farmers adjust to the loss of Food Quality Protection Act-targeted pesticides by considering less toxic alternatives is considered urgent,” she said. “We also strongly encourage grantees to look at the economics of the practices they are trying to implement. With narrow or no profit margins, farmers are unlikely to implement techniques that are more costly than their current practices.”
Information about the EPA grants and how to apply for them can be found at the American Farmland Trust Web site, www.aftresearch.org, and on the Strategic Agriculture Initiative toolbox Web site at www.aftresearch.org/sai/public/ index.php.