Cut to pest control program leaves farms vulnerable this summer

North Branford — Joe DeFrancesco stands midfield surveying a swath of healthy, red-tasseled sweet corn he figures is a week from harvest.

Nestled between the stalks is a scarecrow-height white bag that is a trap DeFrancesco uses to catch the moths of a pest known as the corn borer. If the moths reach a certain threshold number, he sprays insecticide on the corn.

“This is a corn lot that 25 years ago you’d have sprayed 15 times already,” he said, explaining that in years past, farmers simply sprayed on a regular schedule. “I haven’t had to touch it yet.”

The technique comes from a farming practice called integrated pest management, or IPM. It helps farmers minimize chemical use by scouting insects as DeFrancesco is doing. Among its other common practices are using good insects in crops to gobble up bad ones and bordering fields with insect-prone plants that protect the others.

A joint program between the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been helping DeFrancesco with pest management the past two summers. The program included regular visits from an Extension educator, equipment, detailed instruction and follow-up evaluation.

But this summer, which would have been his final one in the program, DeFrancesco and about three dozen other farmers around the state unexpectedly will be on their own.

In mid-April, only weeks before the heart of growing season, the Conservation Service’s office in Connecticut cut off the program’s key funding, which had been provided through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP, pronounced EE-kwip). It means DeFrancesco will get no help fine-tuning his scouting for corn and other crop pests. He’ll have no way to assess how well a new deep planting method he began last year is working. And it means he’s on his own in terms of pest management of the strawberry patch he started this year, figuring an educator would be around to assist him.

“I’m just gonna wing it and go on my own,” he said of the strawberries. “I did some reading up in different books about it so I’m going to see how it goes.

“It’s always nice to have that one more year of not being just thrown out there. It’s the little things that are missing.”

A national model

While UConn Extension has other IPM programs, this particular one, begun in 2004, had been considered a national model because of its partnership and emphasis on long-term education in specific categories: vegetables, fruit, greenhouse plants and, recently, grapes were added.

The Conservation Service selected the farms to participate, more than 100 since the program began. Each entered into a three-year contract under which the Service paid the farm a per acre incentive — though growers uniformly say it’s the advice, not the money, that’s valuable. The Conservation Service also provided about $200,000 a year to pay for the Extension educators’ work. It was the educator funding that was cut.

Penny-wise, but pound foolish, agreed Jim Futtner of Futtner’s Family Farm in East Hartford and South Windsor. Like DeFrancesco, he is a fourth generation farmer who was to have started his third year in the program.

“They got more bang for their buck for the [integrated pest management] program than they do for other programs,” said Futtner, who wrote to the Conservation Service stating his concerns. “I felt there were other things they should have cut before this. We’re trying to encourage young growers to come into farming, and this is probably one of the most important things, besides actually growing the crop, that a young farmer should learn.”

The greenhouse component, which had been under way since winter, abruptly ended with only a few weeks left. The fruit component had to stop a couple of weeks after it began.

The vegetable program — by far the most popular — had not started and has elicited the most concern. It’s been handled by longtime Extension educator Jude Boucher, who achieved near legendary status in 2009 when the disease, late blight, threatened to obliterate Connecticut’s tomato crop.

It was Boucher’s regular travels to farms around the state, which the Conservation Service program had made far more extensive than they used to be, that kept him on top of the situation and able to keep growers informed through his popular weekly pest message and personal phone calls as needed. More than a few growers credit Boucher with saving their tomatoes.

This year, with several potentially devastating pests and diseases on Connecticut’s doorstep, there is concern that fewer farm visits by Boucher and other educators will mean less vigilance and more problems. Late blight has already been confirmed in New Haven County; a devastating fruit fly that came into the state late last summer has been spotted in two counties; and a stubborn stinkbug that attacks multiple vegetables is in every county in the state.

No money for gas

“Basically our coordinator told us to stay in our office because there was no money for gas and it’s too late to apply for grants,” said Boucher, who described the situation as Extension getting a divorce from the Conservation Service.

Boucher said a few thousand dollars has been cobbled together so educators can buy gas to get to some farms this summer, but most of the more than two dozen he would have visited have been cut lose, even though they will continue to receive their incentive payments from the Conservation Service. Those payments have totaled more than $1 million over the life of the program.

He said it was possible the program could return next year, but likely that would mean going back to the grant-funded, paperwork-heavy format they used before NRCS came in. It covered fewer farms, and small farms and organic farms were ineligible. Even though the current program is called integrated pest management, organic farmers were allowed to participate.

“I don’t think we can replicate the program, but we’ll come up with the money to continue the program in the future one way or the other,” he said. “It just gets more difficult.”

Educators and farmers alike point out that pest management is not a one-time learning process. Techniques and treatments change as do how insects and diseases respond to them. Even seasoned farmers can’t always identify the pests and spots on their crops.

Futtner said while Boucher helped him in the fields, teaching him things like tomato staking techniques that allow wind to dry the leaves, he also worked with Leanne Pundt on pest management for his greenhouse. Without her, Futtner said, he never would have known many of his plants were infected with insects.

“I was very concerned about the growers because I think that they continue to tell all of us through this program how valuable it was to them to have the hands on,” Pundt said. “It’s hard to keep up with changes with regards to technique, with regards to new products, with regards to pests, with regards to changes in biological controls.”

Cutting pest money, or staff

State Conservationist Jay Mar, who runs the NRCS office in Connecticut, cut the program after his office was hit with a 15 percent funding reduction. He said the choice was between cutting the pest management money or cutting his own staff.

“We just don’t have the money to do it,” he said.

But his suggestion that the Extension staff train his people to cover more farms got a raised eyebrow from Ana Legrand, the IPM coordinator at Extension.

“I think the level of knowledge and practice required takes many years of experience,” she said. “We can provide training for them, but it’s not the same as our IPM educators going out there and visiting with the growers.”

Legrand said she hoped the partnership could be renewed. In the meantime, she faces more funding troubles. Conservation Service funding, which is in the farm bill, is expected to go down again next year. And another smaller federal funding source, which recently switched from an allocation to a competitive grant, is expected to change again, potentially causing more financial hardship.

In the meantime, growers like Joe DeFrancesco and his brother Mike say they’re grateful for what they’ve been able to learn. Mike handles the seven acres of greenhouses on the family’s 120-acre farm.

“It really was well worth it to have the program,” Mike DeFrancesco said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.”

His brother added that he’ll miss the extra expert eyes on his field. “I’m doing IPM on my own this year,” he said. “I don’t care how good you are, you always have in the back of your head, ‘Am I doing the right thing?'”