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Pests, Pathogens, and Lots of Row Cover

The season’s first transplanting is cause for great joy, and for great trepidation. Moving the plants from greenhouse to field is a major milestone in the journey from seed to plate, but it introduces a host of variables the farmer can only marginally control. You can irrigate when it’s dry, but you can’t opt out of the rain. You can use row cover to keep out aerial pests, but you’re stuck with the ones below ground. Row cover provides a few degrees of frost protection, but it’s no substitute for sunshine. There comes a point, once the plants are outside, where you just have to cross your fingers and hope the weather will be kind.

In truth, we could use a little more warmth right now. We transplanted the kale, chard, and collards on April 8, catching a sunny window in between days of rain. Six days later, when I pulled back the cover for the first cultivation, many of the plants were wilted. Initially I attributed it to the cold, but once I started cultivating, the real problem became apparent. Seedcorn maggot—a pest that does its worst damage in early spring—had burrowed into the stems. Some plants had just a maggot or two, and some had none, but others had dozens. Suddenly, the entire day was reoriented towards damage control. Dan, Steve, Donna, Judy, and I spent hours crawling up and down the rows, scouting each and every plant. Wherever we found a maggot, we removed the host plant and a trowel’s worth of surrounding soil. By the end, half the kale and several dozen collard plants had been dumped into tubs, with no guarantee that the remaining plants were out of the woods. Then we debated our next step. Should we fill in the gaps with the leftover plants from the greenhouse? Should we wait a week and then refill? Should we reseed entirely? With so many of variables to consider—the lifecycle of the maggot, the approaching first CSA pickup, the persistent cold—calling the next step wasn’t easy, but ultimately we decided on a little of everything. We consolidated the field plantings so that the remaining rows wouldn’t have any gaps. We’d wait one week before planting the leftovers. And I’d seed an entire backup that evening, just to prepare for the very awful but very real possibility that the entire first planting would be lost, despite our best efforts.

A crew can do a lot of talking in the hours spent up close and personal with the maggots. Not surprisingly, much of the conversation related to the obvious parallels with coronavirus. When a deadly pest or pathogen swoops in so suddenly, how do you resist the urge to panic? How do you identify your options? How do you chart a course forward? When we first encountered the maggot in 2017, the urge to panic was acute, but we had to swallow it in order to move forward. First we had to know thy enemy, so we sent samples to Cornell Cooperative Extension for identification. Once we knew the culprit, we read up on their habits and lifecycles, so we could plot our strategy. It was crucial that we educate ourselves. So it goes with coronavirus. The truth is scary, but ignorance is scarier. We’re all suffering from information overload right now, but there’s plenty of reputable, fact-based science available, if you know where to look. There’s much we can’t control in this crisis, but the information we consume is one of the few arenas where we’re still in charge. As with food, we should consume wisely.

Back to the weather, which we definitely can’t control. We’re bracing for what we hope will be the final cold snap of the season—tonight’s overnight low is pegged at 34°, accompanied by 40 mph winds. To prepare, we’ve laid extra row cover on the plants and extra sandbags on the tarps. We’ve done all we can, so now the only thing left is to cross our fingers and hope for the best. It’s nerve-wracking, to be sure, but we’ve been down this road before. Regardless of how the fields look tomorrow, we know that sooner or later, spring will come.

She always does.

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