Sustainable Farming

Farming Methods

Nowadays, terms like  “conventional”, “organic”, “biotechnology”, “IPM”, and “sustainable” are used to refer to various agricultural methods or philosophies.

Unfortunately, individuals and organizations tends to use those terms however they choose, which creates inconsistencies, and more importantly confusion among consumers; so, it is worthwhile to describe those terms (and available methods) before we explain sustainable farming at Shenot’s.

Conventional Faming

With advances in chemistry and mechanical technology, conventional farming practices became very popular in the early-to-middle 1900’s. Farmers’ yields soared with the introduction and increased use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Unfortunately, fields became depleted of organic matter because of the lack of crop rotation, i.e., the occasional planting of cover crops.  Eventually, farmers began to take notice that Mother Nature was suffering the consequences such recurrent, excessive practices.

Organic Farming

Organic farming has been practiced since the man first domesticated plants for food.A photo of a field worker picking apples at Shenot's Farm in Wexford, PA

Modern organic farming involves growing (and treating) crops with methods that used primarily naturally-occurring products.

There are two main components: (1) improving fertility, and (2) minimizing loss due to pests.

With organic methods, improving soil fertility is mostly limited to the application of animal manure or ‘green manure,’ which is a plant-based compost.

Organic pest control involves the use “organic” pesticides, which must be registered under an organic label, as well as other methods. An example of an organic pesticide is ‘lime-sulfur’, which is an organically-accepted fungicide. Insect control is achieved in a variety of ways. There are only a few organically-registered insecticides, so most control is achieved by preserving or introducing predatory insects to eat or parasitize pest insects. Another method is using pheromones to disrupt the mating cycles of pests, thereby stopping multiple generations.

A common misconception is that organic crops are not treated or sprayed with any compounds. In fact, because naturally-occurring compounds are generally less effective than other compounds, organic crops are often treated twice as often as conventionally-grown crops.

Biotechnology or Genetic Modification

Genetically modified foods, commonly referred to as “GMO’s” are growing in popularity but are also raising concerns among consumers.  Science now gives growers the ability to grow vegetables, grains and even livestock with built-in “pest guards” that make them either: (1) immune to disease; (2) capable of producing their own insecticides; or (3) unaffected by synthetic herbicides. There are various pro’s and con’s of biotechnology, but please note: we do not grow genetically-modified crops at Shenot’s.

Sustainable Farming at Shenot’s

A photo of workers planting a small apple tree at Shenot Farm in Wexford, PA.Many customers ask, “so, what type of farming methods does Shenot’s practice?”

Today, the fifth and sixth generation of Shenots farm the same piece of earth as our ancestors did 150 years ago. Our goal is to see the farm last for at least six more generations; so, we employ “sustainable” farming practice that take the best methods from both “organic” and “conventional” approaches.

Sustainable farming is a common-sense approach that is neither organic nor conventional as neither method leads to the best long-term use of the land. For example, we have implemented an integrated pest management program (IPM) approach that considers tillage, crop rotation, pest monitoring, temperature, rainfall, pest life cycles, and pesticide toxicity to manage pests and reduce the damage they cause.

Fertility

Our soil is our single greatest asset.

If it is not managed properly, sustainability is not possible.

One would think that the actions taken while producing a crop makes the soil fertile; in fact, it is the off-season growing of cover crops that have the greatest effect. As soon as a field is harvested, we immediately sow it with rye as a cover crop. Growing rye has several benefits. First, rye provides competition for weeds which reduces the need for chemical herbicides. Secondly, it takes up nutrients that may otherwise be lost due to leaching, and prevents erosion on steep slopes. When the rye matures, we do not harvest it for grain or straw, but rather incorporate it back into the soil. This ‘green manure’ builds the soil with organic matter that provides a great ecosystem for beneficial micro-organisms and earthworms.

The incorporation of the cover crop into the soil greatly reduces the need to supplement our crops with synthetic fertilizers.

Pathology

There are countless pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and fungi that have the potential to infect and harm crops in a variety of ways. To prevent such infections, we try to keep our plants as healthy as possible because a weak plant or tree is much more susceptible to attack than a healthy one.

Knowing early warning signs–whether it is a symptom of the plant a prevalent weather condition–is crucial.

There are organically-acceptable compounds such as streptomycin and copper that can be used, but we employ synthetic fungicides as a last resort, too.  Plant breeders have been a big help in recent decades by selecting and breeding varieties of crops that are naturally resistant or tolerant to pathogens. This is not to be confused with biotechnology. These newer varieties greatly reduce the need for chemical controls.

Entomology

Farmers must be adept identifying and managing a wide range of insects–whether they are pests or beneficial.

Very few agricultural crops, with the exception of those that are genetically modified, are immune to insect attacks, and we don’t grow genetically-modified crops.

Under an organic program, it is very difficult to control harmful insects.

Under an IPM program, synthetic insecticides are used as a last resort. There are, however, several ways to minimize (and hopefully) eliminate the need for chemical applications, and these methods require vigilance. We scout and monitor fields and orchards to determine the presence and numbers of insects–both pests and beneficials. For example, a large population of natural predators such as lady beetles can quite efficiently consume an outbreak of aphids, thus eliminating the need for chemical controls. Pre-emptive measures can also be taken by introducing parasites such as Trichogramma wasps to attack the eggs of corn borer and cabbage moths. Although many insecticides are very selective and do not harm beneficials, reducing our applications helps to insure their survival and efficacy.

Another non-chemical insect control that we have implemented is ‘Mating Disruption.’ This highly effective method controls four different insect species in our peach and apple orchards. Mating disruption is achieved by placing pheromone dispensers in each fruit tree. The scent emitted by these dispensers confuse adult moths so they cannot pin-point each other’s location. They in turn miss their breeding window and cannot produce the larvae that would otherwise eat (and damage) trees and fruit. We work with researchers from Penn State University to expand this method to additional insect species. We are very excited about the program since in the first year of the study we were able to cut our insecticide applications by nearly 50%.

Thank You For Your Business

We recognize that there is a certain amount of trust that our customers place in us as the grower, and we want to assure you that we place safety first–both in the short-term production of this year’s crop and the sustainable, long-term use of our farmland. Customers want their family’s food to be healthy and delicious and safe. We take that safety very seriously not just as purveyors of produce, but because our own family eats the same food. We hope that this information has given you the ability to take comfort in the way your food is produced. Our goal is for you to enjoy eating our fruits and vegetables as much as we enjoy growing them for you.