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Different kind of pest control

SMSU test plot project explores vegetable crops

Agronomy Field Trials. McFarland Farms July 18, 2019

MARSHALL — A research project at Southwest Minnesota State University’s agronomy test plots could change the way fruit and vegetable crops are grown in the Upper Midwest.

Agronomy Professor Adam Alford is leading a research study to evaluate how plastic matting of various colors affects insect populations on several major crops. The plot area used in the study includes cucumbers, squash and melons.

Alford brought the project to SMSU after being hired as an agronomy professor. He began with research at Virginia Tech University, where he did post-doctorate work.

Adding SMSU to the study, which also includes the universities of Clemson and North Carolina at Asheville, will allow coordinators to study the effects on insect populations in a colder climate.

“It became an opportunity to test it out in the Northern Plains,” Alford said. “The conditions are different here than in the Southeast. There’s a difference in soil, rainfall, temperatures and insect populations.”

He said vegetable crop matting has been practiced widely since the 1950s. It serves as a way to conserve moisture as well as a method of weed and pest control.

The first year of local test plot data, compiled in 2020, showed no statistically significant differences between three types of matting and a control plot that uses no covering at all. Alford said that result is most likely due to cropping history.

The plot area previously had a corn and soybean rotation. It therefore didn’t have insect populations needed to gauge the difference.

“The insects that feed on fruit and vegetable crops need time to colonize it,” Alford said. “Once they become established, we’ll have a better idea of whether or not there’s a difference based on covering.”

He added that project coordinators decided to allow insects to establish themselves naturally rather than introducing species of insects into the plot.

One reason is that the introduction of insects could have become an additional variable in the tests. Another is that insects brought from another location might not adapt well to their new environment.

He said the plastic matting requires maintenance each year since it’s not biodegradable. The research project will include an evaluation of the potential to re-use the plastic for more than one year in order to save on expenses and labor.

“There’s a cost associated with using it,” he said. “Historically there’s been a payback by having better insect protection and therefore better yields. We’re expanding on that by finding out if the color of the plastic has an impact.”

The fruit and vegetable crops are one component of SMSU test plot research, which also includes extensive testing of major cash crops. If the studies are adapted to farm operations in the region, it may provide an extra income source for farm families.

“The Upper Midwest has a strong corn and soybean tradition,” Alford said. “The students in our classes who go into crop production are very likely to raise mostly corn and beans. This might offer an extra enterprise.”

Gerry Toland, an SMSU economics professor and department chair, said Alford’s research became a good opportunity for test plot studies.

A total of $10,000 from the research grant will be used in the 2021 growing season to pay interns to assist with plot maintenance and data collection.

“We’re thankful that Virginia Tech allowed him to apply his research here, and that they even allowed him to use some of the grant dollars,” Toland said. “It’s a good project that adds to what’s being done at the plot site.”

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