Coming to a Vineyard Near You!

Summer movie season. Along with millions of other Americans, I’ve seen my fair share of summer movies, especially Michael Crichton movies. I’ve read a number of his books, too. Frequently he drops a character into situation about which he knows nothing, even though the situation has been developing for some time. This forces other characters to explain everything to him. The adventure begins even as the brief explanations continue. (Somehow the hero always arrives the very moment that things really begin to happen.) It’s a nice little plot device.

Sometimes I feel that way in my role as a Boardmember with Associates Insectary. I’ve only been on the scene a couple of years, but the “situation” is one that has been 80 years in the making. And like a character in a Michael Crichton story, I feel like I have arrived just as things are really beginning to get interesting.

I’ve already written about one instance in which the Insectary was able to work with local FFA students to locally produce the squash used for insect production. But other innovations include:

Recycled electric vehicles: When the County retired some no-longer serviceable electric service carts, the Insectary was able to acquire them at salvage value. Using our in-house capability for vehicle repair and maintenance, they are being returned to service, replacing fossil-fueled carts. Movie concept: Mad Max meets Inconvenient Truth

Mites that eat “Fresh and Local”: Most of the predatory Californicus mites raised commercially are fed a food compound that is cheap, easy and convenient. Insect fast food. Ours are raised hunting live prey produced on-site. Does a fresh, healthy diet lead to a more active, healthy mite? Apparently it does. Movie concept: Food, Inc. vs Arachnophobia

A Two-pronged defense of winegrapes: Vine Mealybug is spreading throughout the 480,000 acres of California’s wine producing regions. We are already the leading domestic producer of the Cryptolaemus beetle, a voracious consumer of mealybugs. But this summer, Cryptolaemus will get a new partner: the parasitic Anagyrus wasp. The combination two proven methods of biological control does not bode well for Vine Mealybugs. Movie concept: Pretty much every cop buddy movie ever.

So you see what I mean… I even feel like I’m starting to write a movie trailer. Cue dramatic voiceover:

“In a dangerous world, two unlikely cops partner up to take a bite out of pests. Cryptolaemus is predator, Anagyrus is a parasite. And that’s bad news for Mealybugs…

Coming this summer to a vineyard near you!”

Applied Sustainability

One of the things which continues to amaze me is the disconnect between advocates of sustainable food systems and the mainstream grower community. Often it seems as if people believe that sustainability is simply incompatible with production ag.

At yesterday’s annual meeting of the Associates Insectary, I was reminded once again how narrow that gap can really be. We covered a lot of information about our insectary operations, but the one data point that was really striking to me was the reduction in equipment hours per acre. Since the beginning of this decade, we have dropped equipment hours by one-third. That means huge reductions in fuel consumption, materials applied, fewer opportunities for accidental exposure to our employees or neighbors. That is a pretty big reduction for an operation that was running pretty tight to begin with.

Now perhaps Associates Insectary isn’t that typical. Since being founded in 1927, we (I’m a grower/member as well as a Director) have tried to balance natural, biologically based pest control with essential chemical treatments to maintain a healthy bottom-line both economically and environmentally. While we can look back at some of the practices of the past and shake our heads, the long-term, 81 year trend is one of constant improvement, whether we are looking at equipment usage as mentioned above, or rearing techniques for the Cryptolaemus beetles and predatory mites that anchor our biological services.

Over the next few months, expect to hear from the late Willard Beckley in this space. A UC Berkeley trained economic entomologist, Mr. Beckley managed the insectary from the depths of the Depression to late 1960’s. His writings, I believe, are great testimonials to the concept of applied sustainability, although that term would not come into vogue until years after his retirement. I’ll be reflecting on his thoughts in future posts.