Tom Costamagna has a unique perspective on using biocontrols in ornamental crops. After starting his career in biologicals research at University of California-Davis, he joined Mid-American Growers as director of plant quality. We asked him why he’s committed to making bicontrols a significant part of Mid-American’s production process.
GG: Why do you think biocontrols are a more realistic option for growers now?
Costamagna: In the last five to eight years, the numbers of new chemistries being registered is few and far between, so we need new options. Also, you see the success stories with the influx of biologicals being used in vegetables. I think that’s a driving force as well.
Most importantly, we’re moving forward on the learning curve. Whether it’s new genetics or new pest control tools, when you try anything new, in the beginning you’re going to have fewer success stories than failures. You see some of the small academic trials, and those are good, but it takes a lot of time and effort to translate that to large-scale greenhouse production where we have 20-acre blocks. There’s a huge difference there.
GG: What biocontrols program are you using at Mid-American?
Costamagna: I focus on microbials and endopathogenic fungi, rather than beneficial insects and mites, for two reasons. Ornamental bedding plant growers know how to spray. We’re used to spraying fungicides and insecticides. So the microbials and the endopathogenic fungi make sense — you can put them in the cooler, and there’s not that short timeline to get it out there like you have with beneficials. You’re either using it in the root column for disease suppression or spraying it to attack insects and mites. We can spray every three to seven days and see the results.
And from the grower’s standpoint, the economics of the microbials and the endopathogenic fungi are cost effective. You can afford to put it on on a regular basis and it’s not jeopardizing your pocketbook. If you have a problem, biologicals are not the way to go. But if you want a preventative, you have the foundation blocks for success.
GG: Are you using only biologicals?
Costamagna: A complete transition would be great, but it’s unlikely, at least for us. We start out with microbials and the endopathogenic fungi, but we do have to use synthetic chemicals from time to time. It’s part of the system. If we had no pests from outside and our sanitation was “edible clean,” maybe we could sustain it. It’s going to be a hybrid model. You have to knock down the pest populations occasionally to give the biologicals a chance.
GG: You have a background in this. How do other growers figure it out?
Costamagna: The big piece is getting technical help. Our MGS Horticultural technical rep comes every two weeks. He’s learning from us as much as we’re learning from him, but he’s out looking at and working in the crop. In our experience the technical representatives are not out there for a one-time sale. They want to see the success and educate the growers.
Also, we need to open our eyes and look at similar systems in different crops. There’s much more information out there than what our ornamentals industry is looking at.
It’s getting over the fear factor. No one wants to fail or see a product fail. The resources are out there, whether it’s education or talking to other growers. We just all need to take advantage of it.
GG: What’s your take on the future of biologicals?
Costamagna: I think they’re here to stay. It’s just getting folks to adapt and learn what the pitfalls are. As more of these products get registered and used, they will understand it’s inundative control and not trying to eradicate a problem after it’s happened.
That’s where people fall short — they say, “I had a problem and I tried it and it didn’t work.” Well, microbials have to build up. It’s like the human immune system. Even when you’re taking high doses of antibiotics, in some cases, it doesn’t work right away. It’s educating people on microbiology.