Article on hortidaily.com: Crop consultants help organic growers ‘on the job’ protecting their plants
Aldo van Os and Mark Velders, partners in The Conscious Farmer, are committed to 100% biological plant protection in substrate- and soil-based greenhouses. In this interview, they share some of the details of the approach that they developed over many decades. They coach and train growers world-wide and recently and proudly launched their Certified Soil Food Web laboratories in Germany and the Middle East.
The Conscious Farmer works with beneficial organisms and natural substances to protect plants, without the use of chemicals. “Above ground we work with ladybugs, wasps and mites.” And below ground, with amoeba, bacteria and fungi.” “These beneficials work for us every day, without taking holidays,” both Aldo and Mark state.
The foundation for plant protection begins below ground according to Mark. “A healthy soil biome builds a healthy soil providing the broadest spectrum of nutrients to your crop. The best food is the foundation for a strong immune system for us people but also for your plants. And soil microbes are still the best and most powerful plant feeders available. And when pests and diseases occur, we deal with them by using natural predators (BCA’s) and natural substances (bio-sprays).”
Aldo and Mark claim they can do biological plant protection up to half the average cost per square meter. When asked how they do it, they share some details about their integrated approach.
“In biological control, one small change can make a difference for your whole strategy. It is top sport. Like a football coach you must put your players in the right position, at the right time, and keep an eye on them.”
Many growers try to save money under the assumption ‘there is not many pests to deal with, so we don’t need our natural protections yet’, Aldo and Mark observe in practice. They recommend the opposite. “It is critical to build your team of beneficials in the beginning and not when it is too late. Growers that leave it to the last moment end up having to buy more control agents or use more and more intensive applications of bio-sprays”, Aldo explains. “Sometimes things run totally out of control.”
“We know the pitfalls growers often walk into. Using insects, bio-sprays or microbes at the wrong moment can create more problems than you solve.” Above ground, growers do need to be careful when to use a bio-spray and when you don’t. “Using bio-sprays too early when your BCA population is not mature enough can create more damage than it repairs.” “Below ground, Fusarium spores love sterile substrates and soils and only become active when they are the only one present. So, it is important to establish a healthy microbiology as soon as you start with a new substrate, have sterilized your old substrate or soil.”
The annual plan
Every season The Conscious Farmer consultants start the year with a plan identifying all potential bears on the road, above ground ánd below. In this way they have 95% of the potential threats covered at the beginning of the season. “This year plan is the foundation”, they explain. “Then with your weekly scouting report you fine tune your plan as you go.” For scouting below ground TCF consultants train their growers to do a ‘quick scan’ of their soils for biological activity and vitality, pathogens and other indicators under the microscope.
Aldo and Mark conclude by adding: “In general we observe that it appears more difficult for growers to plan their pest control strategy. It is often easier to simply react when there is a problem. In our approach we train growers to get out of this reactive mode and get them into a preventative method of plant protection.” So, in the reactive mode the pests and diseases are ruling the grower and in the preventative mode the grower is behind the steering wheel? “Yes, that’s completely right”, Aldo and Mark confirm.
Growers who want their soil or compost assessed for biological health and vitality, can ask Mark to assist by doing the assessments with the grower behind their own microscope and camera. “I can also train growers and their team on-line in doing the microscopic assessments themself.”
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