Insects, weeds and plant diseases are serious threats to Washington farmers that can devastate crops. Throughout history, farmers have found ways to manage these threats to prevent the loss of their livelihood – and a lot of food.
Each year farmers face tough management decisions, especially when it comes to the best route to raise a good crop while managing environmental impact and costs. They face this reality from the time the seed goes into the soil through harvest, whether they follow organic or conventional farming practices, every farmer employs some type of pest management.
Farmers closely monitor pests, weeds and plant diseases by walking fields, digging into the soil and looking at the plant’s overall health. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and seed treatments are all tools to help manage these challenges and provide healthy choices. Precise management of these tools – based on science, education and a commitment to the environment – is essential to a healthy farm.
Proper use of these tools should not be underestimated. For example, if U.S. farmers did not use pesticides, supplies of corn, wheat, and soybeans would decrease 73 percent, trigger price instability, slow U.S. food aid programs to poor countries, and increase worldwide hunger. (http://ipm.ncsu.edu/safety/factsheets/pestuse.pdf) During the 2012 drought, without proper pesticide use, the insect population would swell, like during the Dust Bowl, and destroy even more crops.This plot illustrates how seed treatment can help protect crops against pests like wireworms.
A key component to raising good crops is available nutrients in the soil, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, lime (calcium) and potassium, and farmers closely monitor soil health. Through extensive research, farmers have a higher understanding of how to best replenish soil nutrients, even micronutrients like zinc and manganese. Additionally, there has been extensive university research regarding timing of fertilizer applications for optimum plant uptake and reduced leaching (http://plantsci.missouri.edu/nutrientmanagement/nitrogen/practices.htm).
Farmers use fertilizers to grow high-yielding crops and to take care of the soil, rather than stripping the land of its natural resources. Often man-made fertilizers or manure applications are used to increase nitrogen fertility in the soil, which is a key component for growing field crops. To avoid over-applying and efficiently using their resources, nutrient levels are tested in the soil.
Farmers use all components – herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers – with respect to the environment. They carefully follow labels and consider weather patterns that may impact the efficacy or leaching of an application.
Due to genetic advancements developed within the plant – like biotech traits – many of these tools are used more efficiently. In many cases, crop protection and fertility applications are used so precisely that application amounts are often reduced. Because of Bt developments in corn, a study assessing the global economic and environmental impacts of biotech crops for the first nine years (1996-2004) of adoption showed that the technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 172 million kg and has reduced environmental footprints associated with pesticide use by 14% (http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/pocketk/4/default.asp).
Additionally, because of conventional breeding and overall plant health, many crops can withstand plant diseases better than crops in the past. Other innovations, like Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in tractors and spray machines, have greatly increased precision by applying only where needed rather than widespread field applications. Most farmers involved have learned ways to reduce nitrogen use by 50 lbs. per acre or more by using this technology (http://www.nitrogennews.com/factsheet-farm-solutions/).