By Sharon Tisher
Six months ago, Kathleen Murray, an entomologist and research assistant professor at the U. Maine Department of Biological Sciences, filled the long vacant position of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) entomologist at the Maine Department of Agriculture. Murray sees her role as threefold: helping farmers tackle immediate pest problems with minimum adverse effects on the environment; promoting greater adoption of IPM methods among Maine farmers; and, potentially, addressing ways to minimize the use of chemical pesticides even in non-agricultural contexts. Murray is looking for guidance from the Cooperative Extension, the Agricultural Council of Maine, MOFGA, and others, calling a meeting in the near future to brainstorm ways to advance IPM in Maine.
Although her advanced degrees are in the area of forest entomology (Masters, UMO; Ph. D., UMass), Murray has researched IPM techniques in a variety of agricultural settings. At Cooperative Extension at the University of Connecticut, she worked on IPM for sweet corn; during her last nine years of employment at U. Maine, her work focused on combinations of biological agents, such as neem and Beauveria bassiana, to control the Colorado potato beetle.
Murray participated in a “small way” in the Maine Potato Ecosystem Project, a seven-year project that compared the yields of different approaches to pest management. In small plot field trials, the project showed that equivalent potato yields at harvest could be achieved while reducing kilograms of pesticide active ingredients by 26% over current Cooperative Extension recommendations. I asked Murray whether enough was being done to translate this University research into revised recommendations for large-scale potato farms in Maine. Murray replied that she was not aware of how the Cooperative Extension was responding to this research, but did note that Maine is one of the few land grant universities where Cooperative Extension faculty have 100% Cooperative Extension appointments, rather than joint appointments with University departments. If appointments were joint, and Cooperative Extension and university faculty worked together more on research projects, communication might be improved. A new proposal for a University-based Center for Agriculture might help in this regard.
When Murray started work in January, she was asked to address an immediate,“burning question” that had been plaguing the director of the Office of Agriculture, Natural and Rural Resources, Peter Mosher, for many months: how to reduce fly population in chicken coops. This is a regular problem for poultry producers and has been getting worse due to changes in poultry production practices and resistance of flies to insecticides. Neighbors of large-scale chicken farms were up in arms about the swarms of flies that appeared to be breeding in the manure pits and then spreading into their neighborhoods.
Murray learned that farmers were regularly applying pyrethrins and/or pyrethroids, but these were becoming less and less effective in controlling the problem. She researched IPM techniques that appeared to be very successful in New York State, and invited representatives of nine chicken farms to learn how to use these techniques. Representatives from all of the major egg producers and a small, independent producer showed up to hear Murray’s simple advice: The key to fly control is manure management, and not spraying pesticides. Reducing pesticide use improves natural fly control by the flies’ natural enemies. The insecticides were killing very effective predators of the fly larvae, such as the hister beetle and parasitic wasps. New York researchers found that keeping the manure pits very dry, often with fans, makes them less conducive to breeding flies. When the pits are cleaned out, farmers trap the hister beetles, then release them again into the pits to attack the next generation of larvae.
The reaction of the invitees to the workshop? They’d “heard it all before” and are still spraying. Murray hopes that with time they’ll be able to change: “They’re motivated economically to find new solutions, because the pesticides are expensive and are becoming less and less effective.” Murray notes that one independent chicken producer had discovered that simply spreading limestone frequently over the pit keeps the situation under control better and at less cost than pesticides.
Murray broached the subject of initiating Maine IPM certification at the annual meeting of the Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association. Surveys have shown that consumers favor IPM certification “once they know what it is.” Certification raises the level of consciousness on the part of consumers about how their food is grown. Growers report that it also raises their level of consciousness about adoption of IPM and pesticide use. Some growers get a higher premium for IPM-certified produce, and almost half of consumers surveyed said they would pay up to 10% more for IPM-certified food. Massachusetts has an IPM program that certifies 50 farms, and Wegman’s, a chain store with 52 outlets in New York and one in New Hampshire, operates its own IPM program and sells only produce that qualifies under the program. Several growers have expressed an interest in such a program. Murray plans to continue to seek farmers interested in developing a program, and believes federal funds would be available to help accomplish this.
Lastly, Murray, a mother of two school-age children, is concerned about the issue of pesticide use in schools. She is interested in working with the Board of Pesticides Control’s new Indoor Pesticide Use Advisory Committee to investigate how pesticides are being applied in Maine schools – in cafeterias, classrooms, and on playing fields. Are they applied regularly, according to a schedule, or only when a problem arises? Who applies them? What chemicals are being used? Do any schools have IPM plans in place? Are steps taken to apply pesticides when they are least likely to affect children and staff? Should children and staff be given advance notice of pesticide applications?
We should take steps to ensure that schools are safe from hazards posed by pesticides as well as pests, Murray believes, because children may be particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposures, and most spend long hours in schools and on playing fields. Murray is currently collecting information from the EPA and other states on IPM approaches to pesticide use in schools.
Murray says that she is “really pleased to have this opportunity to utilize my training and experience in entomology and IPM to serve the people of Maine. I am enthused about any opportunities to collaborate with farmers, Cooperative Extension, and organizations such as MOFGA to help provide a supportive environment for environmental stewardship in the production of healthy agricultural products.” She encourages anyone with concerns or interests in the role of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources in IPM to contact her at her office in Augusta.