Farm Progress

Agroecologist Jonathan Lundgren will talk about bugs and farming at 2017 PFI annual conference.

Tamsyn Jones

December 27, 2016

7 Min Read
BENEFICIAL BUGS: Not all insects are pests, there are a number of beneficial insects in your fields,” says farmer and agroecologist Jonathan Lundgren. He will be one of a number of speakers at the upcoming 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference.

When farmer and agroecologist Jonathan Lundgren sees insects in his field, he sees the potential for a thriving insect community that can save farmers money by helping to keep weeds at bay and control pests that prey on crops — services that can decrease or eliminate the need for costly inputs.

“Farmers, and much of society, have a very pest-centric view of insects and biodiversity in general,” says Lundgren, who directs the South Dakota-based ECDYSIS Foundation and serves as CEO of Blue Dasher Farm. “But that’s very shortsighted because for every pest insect, there are 1,700 species that are actually helping us.”

Lundgren argues that figuring out how to manage those insect communities to reap the benefits is the future of entomology, because “when we have that biodiversity, we can use it to save money on farms.”

In corn, for instance, he says researchers are finding that as insect diversity increases, populations of damaging pest insects, like corn rootworm and corn borer, decrease. “So farmers who are fostering biodiversity no longer have to pay for Bt corn or neonicotinoid treatments. This is a message that doesn’t get out to farmers very often.”

Lundgren answers below some frequent questions from farmers.

Q) In your experience, is the idea of harnessing insects on farms rather than trying to eradicate them a strange or radical idea for some farmers?
A) Yes, for farmers in general, as well as much of society. But there are some insects that are pests and some species that are helping us. That’s the future of entomology: figuring out how to manage those insect communities to reap the benefits. Because when we have that diversity, we can use it to save money on farms. This is a fairly new idea; this message doesn’t go out to farmers very often. For farmers farming regeneratively, this is nothing new. But for folks who farm conventionally or who haven’t thought of insects other than as pests, this is a new idea.

Q) Do you think this message will be hard to spread?
A) Farmers are small-businessmen who should be trying to improve the profitability on their farms. The bottom line is they can use biodiversity to save money on their farms. In corn, for instance, we’re finding that [insect] predators are particularly important in managing corn rootworm and other pests: like corn borer and aphids. We’re finding that as we increase diversity in our corn farm, it is negatively associated with pest populations. So farmers who are fostering biodiversity no longer have to pay for Bt corn or neonicotinoid treatments. We’ve been conducting similar sorts of experiments in multiple systems, and there’s a very strong trend toward the functioning of this [biodiversity-based] system. Diversity is the key. is better than none, and more is better than less in terms of diversity.

Q) How does one start to restore or enhance this insect biodiversity on farms?
A) There are four simple principles on farms:
Use no-till or dramatically reduced tillage; that’s crucial.
There is always a living root in the soil.
Farmers have diversified plant communities in their operation through multiple means.
• They are integrating livestock back into their system.

If a farmer is going to do any one step, it would be combining no-till and living roots. This is a systems-level change. If farmers just go no-till, it won’t have the same impact as if they do no-till and cover crops, and that won’t be as dramatic as if they had diversified plant communities and livestock.

Q) Is it necessary for farmers to give up all pesticide use to take advantage of insect services, or is it possible to integrate insects into a chemical-based crop management regimen?
A) Pesticides can be a part of this, but when you go down this path, you end up not needing those inputs. If you want to maximize profitability and minimize costs, that’s what these systems do. I would recommend that farmers approach this as a systems-level change, but it maybe doesn’t have to be on an entire farm. A farm is a business; and most successful businesses invest 10% in research and development. Farmers can invest some land into researching these practices.

Q) Is it true that insects can actually help to protect crops from weeds?
A) Herbivory is a major stressor on weeds. These insects shape when and where weeds grow. Crickets, carabid beetles and things like pill bugs and millipedes — those are actually really important seed predators. They eat the seeds of difficult-to-manage weeds like ragweed, waterhemp, pigweed and others.

Q) What role do pollinators play on a row crop farm?
A) In Iowa soybean fields, having a honeybee colony is the quickest and cheapest way to increase yields. This is based on studies done in Iowa. Even self-pollinating plants like soybeans will benefit by having pollinators around.

Q) Why is soil stewardship and health so important for pollinator conservation?
A) It gets back to those four principles. As you try to start growing soil on your farm and preserving that soil, you enact those principles. They help to reduce the amount of insecticide that you need and create a lot more diversity within habitats. Not only are you producing food for yourself or your crop, but that’s how we’ll solve the bee problem. Anything less than that, and we’ll continue to see dead bees. Bees are dying because of our current food production system; not having enough food, bees are being subject to diseases and pesticides. It’s all related to that simplification [of the food system]. Until we have diversity, farmers and bees are going to be in that same boat.


Register now for 2017 PFI annual conference

Learn from Jonathan Lundgren about how to restore and benefit from this insect diversity at Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2017 annual conference, “Pass It On,” Jan. 20-21 at the Iowa State Center Scheman Building, on the ISU campus in Ames.

In Insects and Soil Health, you’ll learn about the services insects provide on farms and how to harness those services to reduce costs and improve long-term sustainability.
In Pollinator Conservation and Risk Assessment, Lundgren will discuss the link between pollinators and farm profitability, how aspects of our food production systems are adversely affecting pollinators and how farmers can help conserve pollinators by healing their farm’s soils.
In Q&A with Jonathan Lundgren, bring your unanswered questions for Jonathan and continue the conversation on soil health, pollinators and conservation.

Register online at, or contact Erica Andorf at [email protected] or 515-232-5661. Those who preregister by Jan. 12 will save $10 per day. Special rates are also available for students and PFI members.

Soil health course offered
Row crop farmers of all types will find the 2017 PFI conference sessions relevant and useful to them. Whether you farm conventionally or organically, ridge till or roller-crimp, raise small grains or cover crops, the 2017 PFI annual conference offers sessions intended to help beginning and experienced farmers with a range of production, management and land stewardship issues.

Those who want to learn ways to manage production costs while also stewarding their farm’s soil can sign up for a preconference short course, “Conserving $$ and Soil,” on Jan. 19 from 1 to 7 p.m. and Jan. 20 from 8 to 11:30 a.m. at the Scheman building on the ISU campus. This in-depth course will cover topics such as how to identify field zones where profitability is low, the benefits of adding wetlands and buffers, the impact of increasing cropping system diversity, how cover crops can help reduce weed pressure and more. The course will be taught by a suite of experts, including farmers, researchers and others.

Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2017 annual conference is supported by several major sponsors, including Albert Lea Seed, Applegate Organic & Natural Meats, Grain Millers, Iowa State University department of agronomy and graduate program in Sustainable Agriculture, Rimol Greenhouse Systems, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Jones is outreach and publications coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa, based in Ames.


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