If You Build It: A Sustainable Teaching Farm Brings Together a Community

Winter in Live Oak, Florida, hasn’t dampened the spirits of the crepe myrtle, whose budding leaves belie their eagerness to end their slumber. Come spring these colorful trees will have an important job: to harbor the crepe myrtle aphid—a relatively nonthreatening pest—and allow beneficial insects to build populations on them to seek and destroy more serious pest aphids of the still maturing fruits and vegetables growing nearby.

Pest management strategies such as using crepe myrtles as “banker plants” provide the meat of the farmer training at the Living Extension IPM Field Laboratory, a 300-acre demonstration farm connected to the University of Florida’s Suwanee Valley Agricultural Extension Center. In hands-on workshops held at the farm, farmers learn terms like “trap crop,” “cover crop” and “banker plant,” along with other integrated pest management practices that use nature rather than depending on only chemicals to control pests.

On a cool January morning I visit University of Florida Extension Agent Robert Hochmuth and Extension Program Coordinator Lei Lani Davis. They share with me the history of the farm, leading up to a much-desired tour.

A workshop participant learns to use a hand lens to view an insectHochmuth spawned the idea for the farm in 2008, after he and another agricultural agent were asked to teach a program on identifying beneficial insects. After a thorough search for samples on the entire Extension Center property, Hochmuth found no beneficials, except in one area where a faculty member was conducting research on organic farming. Most of the other research plots had involved pesticide use.

“It was then that I got this ‘big idea’ to develop the farm,” Hochmuth says. “I talked to Norm Leppla about it, and he was excited to help.”

Hochmuth and Leppla, the state IPM Coordinator and a University of Florida senior faculty member, proposed a life-size scale sustainable farm to USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to be used specifically for teaching farmers how to use cultural methods of pest management to reduce pesticide use. It would be the largest such farm in the region.

USDA-NIFA gave them $160,000 over a 3-year period to build Hochmuth’s vision.

Beneficial plants, each with a purpose, were planted according to a carefully-constructed plan. A 2013 IPM Enhancement Grant from the Southern IPM Center helped them finish building the farm and hold additional workshops.

Hochmuth and Davis take me on a tour, for which I’ve been eagerly awaiting. As we enter the farm, I begin to see how the plan comes together.

The entrance to the farm leads us by a blueberry patch, guarded by a few bat houses and located next to a patch of where wildflowers will bloom in spring and draw bees and wasps to pollinate the blueberry blooms. Once we enter the main farm area, I see an empty plot to my left, where corn, cotton and several vegetable will grow in spring. In front of us is a strip of crepe myrtles being used as banker plants, yucca being used as a stink bug trap crop and viburnum to give pollinators and predatory insects a safe place to hide while they wait for feeding time. The crepe myrtles seem ready to start their job, as bright green leaves have begun to unfurl from the branch tips.

To the right of the banker plant strip is the fruit and nut tree orchard. At the edge of the farm is the first of many wildflower areas.

“Plants with a purpose,” says Davis. Tags in the ground label plantings of wild blueberry, viburnum and elderberry, placed there to draw pollinating insects and other beneficial predators and parasitic insects close to the orchard.

Further along in the farm is a large brush pile to house snakes. Bluebird and kestrel houses stand tall along the perimeter. Hochmuth explains that everything on the farm has a “job.”

“It’s a whole farm approach,” he says. “We can talk about how to superimpose IPM on the whole farm and the purposes each area serves for each crop.”

A farmer can implement this sustainable approach beginning with just buckwheat and sunflowers, he says. Both attract beneficial insects, and sunflowers attract stink bugs and lure them away from the main crops.

Stink bugs move into the cash crop areas from wooded areas along the perimeter. Sunflowers are planted around selected perimeter sites to lure them to the sunflower and away from the cash crops. Certain sunflower cultivars such as ‘Giganteus’ seem to be especially effective.

sunflowers are used as trap crops for pestsWhen stink bug populations reach a threshold level, the sunflowers are sprayed late in the day with a reduced-risk pesticide. So the pesticides are used on the trap crop and not on the edible crops.

Past the fruit and nut orchard are plantings of sugarcane, just several feet away from a 2-acre certified organic plot. More borders of buckwheat and sunflower protect these areas.

Buckwheat and Shrubby false buttonweed plants have another very unique benefit—to house the Larra wasp, a parasitoid that helps control the invasive mole cricket that damages turf and pastures in Florida. The presence of the Larra wasp, along with an abundant population of pollinators, indicates how healthy a farm is, Hochmuth says.

“It never used to be this diversely populated before the IPM program was initiated,” he says.

In the middle of a large circular irrigation track (called a center pivot), a strip of triticale lies around the perimeter as a trap crop for early season pests like the leaf-footed bug.

“If we can eliminate the early leaf-footed bugs, it really makes a dent on the population of stink bugs and relatives,” Hochmuth says.

As we circle back around, we pass a bank of pollinator hotels and a large greenhouse, surrounded with what looks like shiny aluminum foil on the ground and screens that guard the building. The shiny material is reflective mulch, which confuses flying insects enough to discourage them from passing over it. Any insect determined enough to get through the mulch is caught by the insect excluding screens.

the presence of larra wasps indicate the farm is healthyThe combined program has reduced total pesticide use by over 50 percent. Broad spectrum pesticides like synthetic pyrethroids and organophosphates are no longer being used.

Originally Hochmuth envisioned a small group of specialists who would join in the venture. He invited several UF faculty members who were already doing research in organic and sustainable agriculture. But word about the project leaked out to the larger community, and what happened next was bigger than he had ever imagined.

Soon people from inside and outside the university were asking to join—the state Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Fish and Wildlife agencies, forestry specialists, 4-H clubs, Master Gardeners and university students. Specialists from UF and agencies donated handouts to give to workshop participants. Within a few years, Hochmuth and Davis had enough written material to fill a giant looseleaf binder with handouts to grab for any IPM topic. The farm—specifically purposed for teaching sustainable agriculture—was named the Living Extension IPM Field Laboratory.

Anyone who takes a workshop at the Living Laboratory steps into a sustainable farm experience. Farmers scout crops with hand lenses and look at insect specimens under a microscope. Participants learn how to use a sweep net to collect insects. And those who can’t make the trip can view lessons online at the Living Laboratory website (http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu/) and download the same handouts given to visitors at the farm. Hochmuth even records field days so that anyone who couldn’t attend, or who is too far away, can view at any time (http://vfd.ifas.ufl.edu).

Hochmuth and Davis see a long future for the Living Laboratory. The Department of Corrections donates labor in the form of mulching and weeding, and in return the organizers get to pick some food for the cafeteria. Hochmuth says that even the weeding is a teaching opportunity, as he and Davis often have to point out the difference between a wildflower and a weed.

Although Hochmuth’s initial vision was to reach out primarily to small farmers in the state, the farm has had a much broader impact on the community as a whole.

“The target audience went from small farmers to others like NRCS, Mater Gardeners, county extension agents, students, etc.,” says Hochmuth. “We have a much broader appeal in the community than we ever expected.”