Eco-farming strategies benefit growers, consumers and the environment

Nov. 5, 2013

Apple growers wanted to find the best way to grow apples. Agricultural scientists wanted to reduce pesticide use on Wisconsin farms. These groups, starting with different objectives, found one solution that benefited them both: eco-fruit farming.

The Eco-Fruit Program began as a collaboration between the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and several apple growers around Wisconsin. CIAS project leader Michelle Miller spearheaded the program in 2000, and since then it has served nearly 100 apple and berry growers from more than 20 counties.

Photo: Tom Ferguson by apple trees

Eco-Fruit grower Tom Ferguson at his apple orchard in Galesville, Wis.

The Eco-Fruit Program’s main focus is reducing grower reliance on pesticides that are hazardous to themselves, consumers and the environment, while also supporting growers in finding the best farming practices.

Tom Ferguson, a Wisconsin orchard owner, was one of the first growers to participate. He owns orchards in Eau Claire and Galesville and is a member of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association.

A group of about a half dozen apple growers in the Coulee region of western Wisconsin would regularly get together to have breakfast, talk about their orchards and discuss best-growing techniques, Ferguson says. He notes that apple and berry farming techniques have changed dramatically in the past decade.

“Ten years ago we would have been completely reliant on tree phenology and the calendar, but now we are completely data-driven,” says Ferguson.

Partnership with the Eco-Fruit Program has increased the growers’ exposure to new equipment, and furthered opportunities to learn about the newest and most effective ways to reduce pest exposure to crops. These new techniques fall under a strategy known as “integrated pest management” or IPM.

IPM includes using weather data to predict where disease may emerge and to anticipate conditions where insect pests may start to cut into profits. Growers also analyze data from insect traps to decide whether and when to manage pests. Pest management strategies using IPM vary from disrupting insect mating to planting disease-resistant trees, or managing insect communities to encourage those species that naturally feed on the pests.

Weekly conference calls between growers and university faculty include a report on field conditions and possible IPM responses to pest and disease issues specific to that week, as well as time for growers to ask questions specific to their farms.

Growers also have a chance to speak with UW-Madison agricultural experts during the growing season through the project’s AppleTalk program. From April through August, weekly conference calls between growers and university faculty include a report on field conditions and possible IPM responses to pest and disease issues specific to that week, as well as time for growers to ask questions specific to their farms.

The Eco-Fruit program emphasizes changes at both the field level and at the policy level. Changes in the field include emphasizing IPM strategies in growing, giving growers access to test new tools for pest management before making a costly purchase, and connecting growers with one another to create a positive and supportive network for pest-reduction and better growing practices. Ferguson says that the relationship between farmers in the region is very friendly and supportive.

“We’re very open with one another. There’s no reluctance to share problems that we’re having,” says Ferguson.

The policy component of the Eco-Fruit Project brings grower concerns to the attention of state and federal agencies that support and regulate fruit production. Program leaders work with national and regional agencies to implement laws and regulations to benefit apple growers who use IPM strategies. Miller says growers and Wisconsin citizens also play a critical role in directing the program.

“Our work is guided by a Citizen Advisory Council, as well as by the many and rich off-campus partnerships we’ve forged over the years,” Miller says.

According to recent statistics, the Eco-Fruit Project has been successful in reducing pesticide risk to human health and impact on the environment by 46 percent while also increasing reliance on integrated pest management strategies by 54 percent. Miller says the project will continue to host grower workshops and maintain support systems for growers as more farmers around Wisconsin implement pesticide reduction techniques.