Here at Cooper's, we like to farm the way nature intends, which is why we have been an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) farm since 1993. Check out our growing practices and techniques below to learn more about how we are keeping farming sustainable and natural.
Integrated Pest Management is a farming practice that integrates cultural, biological, and conservation practices with modern technology to produce safe, environmentally sound food.
Basically what that means is that we use a wide variety of strategies (like crop rotation, beneficial insects, crop scouts etc...) to reduce chemical use and measure for actual pest threat. It is not unusual for conventional and larger organic farms to spray excessive amounts of preventative sprays - for an IPM farm this practice is eliminated through the careful monitoring of our produce. This leads to healthier soil, healthier plants, and healthier people. Pesticides are only applied as a last resort, and only pesticides that pose the least possible hazard are used. To find out more about how IPM is in practice at our farm, read each of the sections below. IPM is a big part of how we farm sustainably to create the best possible product for our family and yours.
Handling soil is the one of the most important jobs on the farm. Years ago, we decided to stop participating in the conventional style of managing soil - drenching the soil in a bath of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizers - and started treating the soil like the living breathing entity that it is. One of the ways we do this is by feeding the soil compost - for instance, properly timed applications of manure and plowed in green crops (green manure). When it is necessary, we will till the soil in order to mix it and aerate it, which prepares it for planting. We also add naturally occurring sources of nutrients to breed a balanced soil that holds all of the nutrients naturally available to plants-not just excessive amounts of the three mentioned above. Through these practices we create healthy soil, which yields healthy food all while maintaining the sustainability of our farm.
Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy food!
When selecting which variety of seed to plant for all our different crops, we look for varieties that have exceptional flavour. Some crops can have differences of night and day in flavour, so we have searched for the seeds that yield awesomely tasty produce. At times, this can mean sacrificing appearance or size (heirloom tomatoes for instance), but our produce is always cultivated from the best tasting variety of seed.
The second thing we look for in seed is its ability to thrive in our soil conditions. Due to the sandy nature of our soil, we select seeds that will flourish in the drier, looser earth, as opposed to some varieties which prefer thicker, wetter clay.
The third thing we want is varieties that do well within the confines of our management systems. Seeds that are developed to be grown in baths of N.P.K fertilizers (mentioned above) and need tons of pesticides applied to survive don't work well on our farm, or our conscience. That is why we are constantly on the lookout for seeds that can sustain themselves in a way that requires the least amount of chemical interference, even if that means a little extra blood, sweat, and tears.
Some weeds tell us there is a soil issue (eg. Dandelions indicate a hardpan) and some just love to grow in great earth.
Having control is critical to getting high quality crop. We use many different methods, tillage, stale seedbed, flaming, solarising, some safe herbicides, and even hand pulling. The key is to gain control without damaging the soil or leaving harmful residues on the ground or your plate. Weed control is one of the most important aspects of running a market garden farm.
The great part about growing crops in healthy, well balanced soils is that there are very few pest problems. However, it is far from a perfect system.
Some pests are naturally found in our soil, no matter how healthy your plants or fields are, or how careful you are to manage them. Others may be carried in on the jet stream from all over the world, giving you no way to stop them feeding on your crops. Mosts pests are manageable in small numbers, but there are occasions when pests and diseases are overpowering, and action must be taken to save a crop. The short term fix is using a pesticide; however, the key to using pesticides safely is educating oneself about all facets of the chemical or biological agent being used. That's where the integrated pest management (IPM) farming practises comes in to play. We aim to create a healthy growing environment, using techniques such as beneficial insects, crop rotation, and constant monitoring to reduce the numbers of harmful pests. We will only use chemicals as a last resort (i.e. if we're going to lose our whole crop) as our IPM practices are typically more than sufficient to control for pests.
Crop scouts are a key part in the IPM practice. We hire independent crop scouts to come to our farm twice a week, walk our fields and record levels of pests, disease, and other issues found in the crops.
From this information, we can monitor levels and make an informed decision about when to use control products. When we have to use control products, we choose organic pesticides first. They are generally safer than synthetics but we have to be careful as they are still toxic poisons. We will use a synthetic pesticide when an organic option is either too toxic, not available, or simply just ineffective. The key to using any pesticide (organic or not) is to use it at the right time with the lowest rate possible and then go back and check on how well it worked. We will not use pesticides (organic or synthetic) that leave residues in the food or in the soil. This type of chemical is called a 'non-systemic' spray. If we can't get control of a pest with the options provided we will "walk away from the crop" and let the animals graze it off or turn it back into the soil as green manure...and try again next year. The long term fix for pests is to address soil deficiencies (make sure soil nutrients are balanced) and look for issues in our crop management that may be contributing to the issues and fix them.