Insect – Pests

As we start our third growing season at Road’s End Farm it is time to write about some of our observations and results with the many types of fruiting plants that we grow.  As you know our mission is to develop and promote varieties that are suited to culture in the central New Mexico mountains and similar locales.  We want you to be successful by helping you choose varieties that will profitably produce for you.  Our method is simple in that we take our best educated guess from years of growing, listening to others experiences and add some of the latest varieties to the mix.  We then grow these and see which do best or in some cases do poorly.

Of course results may vary depending on the care, location, microclimate etc. that you give a certain plant.  In those cases we will make recommendations for location and culture.  Our plantings are not babied as you might do at home. They are planted in the field with no shade and treated as a commercial crop would be.  In many cases the planting stock we have purchased has been very small, maybe suitable for a 4” container or was a 4-6” bare root plant.  Such is the way of dealing with new or rare varieties, they just may not be available in a size we would prefer.  Often is the time we felt a larger plant would have survived or thrived whereas the smaller one could not adapt. We will discuss these possibilities as we go through our series of posts.

For those of you more detail oriented, the soil ph at our farm is 8.2 which is considered very alkaline.  Our water comes from fractured limestone and also has a high ph and is very “hard”.  February 2010 recorded minus 34f and summer 2011 recorded a high of 102f.   Most research on “hardiness” of plants is focused on the coldest temperature they can live with and very little research has been done on the warmest temperature they can take.  When we make selections to trial we find ourselves choosing from varieties that may do well in the upper great plains or in Russia’s colder areas. In the case of heat we will discuss it when it applies.  I hope to be able to cover at least 1 fruit type a week in an informal and unscientific manner, but this time of year is always short on “spare writing” time so don’t hold me to it.


Commercial apples are sprayed anywhere from 10 to as many as 25 times in a growing season to bring that picture perfect fruit to market.  They are sprayed with toxic chemicals for prevention of early fungus, scab and viral disease, often sprayed with antibiotics to prevent fireblight and other bacterial infections, sprayed to promote thinning of the small apples, sprayed for control of coddling moth and other pests and on and on.  They are harvested green, put in cold storage and then given ethylene gas to promote artificial ripening. Many people will tell you just to wash them before you eat them or peel the skin off before eating (where most of the nutrients are) and you will get rid of any chemical residues.  I have a hard time believing that all these chemicals when combined and added up are really safe for us.

So what is an organic grower to do?  In many ways we are lucky to be inNew Mexico as most of the disease issues of fruits are related and cultivated in humid climates.  Our dry air and high UV is a natural inhibitor to many disease problems. Cedar apple rust and scab, 2 of the biggest problems are not found inNew Mexico.

The two largest pest issues (aside from birds and rodents) are the apple coddling moth and the apple maggot.   The apple maggot is just being found in a few counties in New Mexico and has not yet reached critical levels.  While you could use an “organic” pesticide such as rotenone, it is still a highly toxic poison. As with most pesticides they are non selective and will kill off beneficial insects as well as the “bad guys”

At this point we have adopted two solutions.  One is the use of a product named “Surround”

Made from modified kaolin clay, Surround® t is sprayed on as a liquid, which evaporates leaving a protective powdery film on the surfaces of

After spraying with Surround

leaves, stems and fruit. It controls a long list of insect pests on vegetables, fruit trees, ornamentals and more and is OMRI Listed for use in organic production. It is mixed about 2 cups per gallon of water and can be applied with a hand sprayer if you only want to do a few trees, or with a standard chemical sprayer for more.  Recommended application is 2 “coats” the second shortly after the first has dried.  It will need to be reapplied during the season as strong rains may wash it off.

Surround® works to protect plants and deter insects in three specific ways:

1.) Tiny particles of the kaolin clay attach to insects when they contact it, agitating and repelling them and possibly clogging their breathing pores.

2.) Even if the particles do NOT attach to their bodies, the insects find the coated plant/ fruit unsuitable for feeding and egg-laying. It just doesn’t look like a red apple any more! It is also thought that the light reflection from the white surface disorients the coddling moth especially.

3.) The protective white film cools plants by up to 15° Fahrenheit, which can help to reduce heat and water stress. Many fruits show improved color, smoothness and size with less russet, dropping, sunburn and cracking.  This in turn makes a stronger and healthier fruit and tree.

The second strategy is the use of apple maggot control bags.  These are a small bag that can be put over your apple and easily held on with a rubber band.  They are from a material similar to panty hose and stretch as the apple grows.  They allow sunlight, and water penetration and can be reused.  This is an effective barrier control method, preventing insects from laying eggs in the apples.  They also have an effect on birds which now ignore them.   Applying apple maggot control bags.

Both strategies should be started when your apples are about nickel size.

This weekend while we performed the morning weeding ritual, we encountered huge quantities of a new bug we hadn’t seen before.  About ½” long and slightly green, this elongated and skinny little guy was a fast mover.   He seemed to be only on certain weeds stayed hidden in the shade.  Any weed that had them though had 30-50 of them on it!  This was definitely in the “invasion” category but we were unable to discern any damage caused by them. 

An email sent to Lisa Dennisson  with the USDA NRCS  gave us lots of info.  Lisa is the “Glenn Haege” of Estancia Valley agriculture.  For those of you who do not know who Glenn Haege is,  he is America’s Master Handyman.  He has a nationally syndicated radio show in which people call in with all kinds of questions about home repair, from painting to plumbing to siding and he always knows the best way to fix it, the best product to use and the store where you can get it that is closest to your house! 

But if it has to do with agriculture or  farming in our valley Lisa knows the answers.

To quote what she told us : Those are Blister Beetles, called that because of the caustic substance they secrete when they are crushed.  They are cyclic, and it appears that this is going to be a bad year for them as I have had several people complaining about them already.  They are drawn to Pigweed and Kochia, but will also decimate tomatoes, peppers and many species in the nightshade family.  They can do damage to fruit/vegetables also, but I tend to find defoliation is the biggest problem.  Try Diatomaceous Earth on areas that you absolutely want to protect, but that will take out the good critters too.  Blister Beetles have no natural enemies, and the birds don’t eat them because they taste bad. 

I don’t doubt anything she said but I do want to know how they know if they taste bad?  Who was the first person to test this out and why?   Are there people whose job it is to taste bugs? and how bad does it have to be to taste bad to a bird?  C’mon birds will eat worms all day long and I don’t particularly think much of the flavor of those.

As she said they will decimate Pigweed and as far as I am concerned that is a major benefit to us as they seem to grow anywhere you water. 

What about the blisters?  Here is a photo from the internet.  Can’t you just picture this fellow feeling something on the back of his neck and swatting it.  It then releases its stuff and blisters him. Ouch!!

We also spoke with Dr. Tessa Grasswitz,  the Urban/Small farms IPM Specialist (505) 865-5163.  Her job is to help citizens with insect pest issues and is always quick to respond to our inquiries.  She has a doctorate in Entomology and certainly knows her bugs.  She had this to say on the subject:

“As adults, these particular blister beetles tend to be attracted to flowering legumes – mainly alfalfa; but they will also aggregate on weeds such as sliver nightshade. Again, however, it is usually the flowers that attract them the most. They are beneficial in that the larval stages parasitize grasshopper eggs, but they become a problem as adults when they aggregate in alfalfa fields because they contain a toxin (cantharadin) that is poisonous to livestock; the beetles can get caught in the crimper when the hay is cut, and even the dead remains can be fatal to livestock – particularly horses. They are not usually pests of fruits or vegetables. Both grasshoppers and flowering alfalfa fields are attractants for them.  The other thing to bear in mind about blister beetles is that their name arises from the fact that if you handle them roughly, their defensive secretion can cause nasty burn-like blisters on the skin. Do be careful with them!

From Wikipedia about cantharadin (the chemical they can secrete):  “Horses are highly sensitive to cantharidin: the LD50 for horses is approximately 1 mg/kg of the horse’s body weight. Horses may be accidentally poisoned when fed bales of fodder with blister beetles in them”

We felt this article was important not because of the detriment to our plants, but the fact that if they are here this might be an issue for those of you who are horse owners.  If these pests are in large numbers in the valley and you feed local alfalfa this could be problem.  I do not know if this is a problem for other animals or just horses. 

 Maybe in the crowd of blog subscribers we have a livestock vet that can help us out to learn more?