Gary Wenig and his wife bought 40 acres in central Missouri to grow organic vegetables. The land was full of weeds and insects, he says, and going organic meant the Wenigs couldn’t use conventional pesticides like the ubiquitous Roundup or atrazine. Organic farmers can use certain nonsynthetic pesticides, but they’re expensive and still can be toxic.
So Wenig decided to experiment. He planted what are known as “trap crops,” sacrificial plants not raised for harvest but that are extra tasty to pesky insects like squash bugs. Trap crops like Blue Hubbard squash attract the harmful bugs, leaving his zucchinis largely untouched.
“The bugs will move in and they’ll stop at that point and eat those plants,” Wenig says. “So then you spray that portion of your garden only. You don’t have to spray the food you’re eating.”
It’s like a perimeter defense system. But Wenig took it even further. He wanted to cut out all pesticides — conventional and those approved for use under the organic label.
“We have free-range chickens, and the chickens love those bugs,” he says. So he thought, “instead of spraying [the trap crops], why don’t we get the chickens to eat them?”
Once the patches of planted trap were grown, Wenig rolled out a chicken tractor — basically a large, mobile coop on wheels with a mesh-wire bottom — and let several chickens in there feast on the bugs from above. Every few hours, he moved the mobile coop to a new patch. The arrangement saves Wenig money on both pesticides and feed for his chickens and ducks.
While the trap crop and chicken system has worked for the Wenigs’ small farm, it might not be feasible on a larger, conventional farm. That’s why university researchers, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are looking at ways to combat pests …