An anonymous online survey by Greenhouse Grower magazine in December 2014 of more than 156 ornamental plant and flower growers across the U.S. found 81 percent used biocontrols in 2014 — with overwhelmingly positive responses, as well, to the question of whether they “definitely” (85 percent) or “probably” (9 percent) would do so again in 2015.
Responding growers were representative of the national ornamentals industry, with Ohio, Michigan, California, Florida and New York, in that order, leading the pack. Based on survey returns, biocontrols seem to have come a long way in overcoming old perceptions of “snake oil.” The number-one reason or benefit for using biocontrols among current users (25 percent) was product effectiveness.
A grower in Minnesota lamented that “I should have started using [biocontrols] a long time ago.” A grower in Georgia noted that biocontrols “can be even more effective than traditional chemicals.” One producer in Maryland simply said, “Get the word out that these products work.”
Requirements of a sustainability program (19 percent), managing pesticide residues (17 percent) and resistance management (14 percent) also were high on the benefits list, with many growers also citing a desire to reduce their own and their employees’ exposure to traditional chemical pesticides.
Using biocontrols “takes a lot of learning new ways,” cautioned a grower in Ohio, “but in the end it is worth it, both financially and [in] effectiveness.”
Cost And Logistics Issues
Current biocontrol users and nonusers alike noted whatthey perceive to be a higher cost for biocontrols than traditional pesticides.
“In our experience,” reported a California grower, “biocontrols are much more expensive, not as effective [as chemicals] and create great complexities in managing pest complexes. In the end, the use of biocontrols is far from simple or cost-effective at this time.”
And even when the price of a product itself is manageable, working with a perishable product that continually must be brought in often isn’t.
“Shipping prices are more expensive than biocontrols,” said a grower in Minnesota. “How can we maintain biocontrols without having to repurchase as often?”
Sifting out products that actually work also can be time-consuming, even for those who use them.
“Hard to find the best biocontrols,” said a grower in California. “Well worth it when you finally do find them, [but] more public investment at the local university and college level in ag Extension and ag research [is] needed.”
Other growers, including several who are seasoned biocontrols users, seem to have faced lower hurdles on the road to adoption. One grower in New York State reported reducing pesticide use by more than 90 percent since incorporating predatory insects a decade ago. Another grower, in Colorado, has managed a biocontrols program for 19 years and said without equivocation: “This is not a new thing for us. It is very effective.”
Several growers were eager to convey their experience in learning that patience and trial-and-error can go a long way.
“Plan ahead, use more than needed to start and pare down to what works best and what amount is best for you,” counseled a grower in New Hampshire. “The more years you use them, [the more] you will find which biocontrol works best: when, how much and how often you need to — weekly, monthly, etc.”
And don’t count on merely dabbling in biocontrols.
“As I’ve heard a number of times, you can’t try biocontrols, you have to do biocontrols,” said a grower in Maine. “You have to approach insect control proactively, not reactively. [When] I see one whitefly, I order Encarsia [formosa], a parasitic wasp.”
This particular grower also takes extensive preventive precautions.
“Every liner I get in, I dunk into a mixture of nematodes, Botaniguard and Rootshield. [There is] so much to understand for the novice, but after a few years, the notecards and reference guides aren’t needed.”
A Call For More Education
If there is one consistent theme among growers who are not yet using biocontrols, it’s that getting to a level of confidence and expertise can be daunting. A commanding 65 percent of non-users said their single biggest factor to date in non-adoption is that “I don’t know enough about biocontrols to use them effectively.”
Perhaps they should consider talking more frequently with biocontrols suppliers themselves. Interestingly, while nonusers listen first to growers, then university/Extension, for advice on whether to use biocontrols, current users go to suppliers first — then to other growers, then to university/Extension. Suppliers, said a grower in Georgia, “seem to be the only ones who know anything about how to use [biocontrols] and [are] the only ones really talking about them.”
But suppliers, take note: Even 33 percent of current users cite improved product effectiveness as the chief factor that would motivate them to increase their use — though some did report being unable to increase because they’re already maxed out.
“I’m essentially at 100 percent now so I can’t increase,” said the grower from Maine.
Indeed, growers overall seem quite satisfied with biocontrols. Slightly more than half of all current users reported results as being “better” (36 percent) or “somewhat better” (19 percent) than they expected. Only 7 percent were disappointed in their results.
But perhaps above all, a number of growers cited having seen the writing on the wall, and increasingly it spells biocontrols.
“They work,” a grower in Massachusetts said plainly, “and customers are beginning to demand their use in production.”
To review the full results from Meister Media Worldwide’s Biocontrols Survey, please visit bit.ly/MeisterMediaBiocontrolsSurveyResults.