The most intriguing element of the interview with Michael McNeill was the suggestion that you should stop all pesticide applications all at one shot. I know it can be done because this was the approach we took on our farm years ago, but I have been hesitant to recommend that leap to others.
Our approach in our consulting work has been that we have to earn the right to discontinue pesticide applications by producing such a healthy crop, it becomes resistant to possible pests, and you no longer need the pesticides. Of course, achieving that outcome is made much more difficult from the continued pesticide applications.
We also have slightly different contexts. We are working with many high-value crops, with more intense pesticide applications, where we don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes. Of course, broadacre producers would say they don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes either.
In practical application in the field, I am comfortable making recommendations to discontinue the use of fungicides and insecticides when we have sap analysis reports, and we can observe the nutritional profile of the crop is not conducive to infection.
In any case, who can argue with success?
From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:
John: Michael, what is the one action that you would advise all growers to take right now that could make the biggest difference in their operations?
Michael: Stop poisoning the soil.
John: I guess that’s easy!
Michael: It’s real simple—just stop.
John: That sounds simple. It sounds easy to do—but how? How do you manage that?
Michael: It is a challenge, if you’ve spent most of your life doing things one way. Stopping doing something is not necessarily easy. But that’s the one action growers need to take to be successful.
John: Are there transition steps that can be taken to move away from that? What are what are some of your growers who have moved away from using herbicides doing?
Michael: I have seen a full array of actions—from taking baby steps to jumping off the cliff—100 percent stop. And I have seen growers—from the smaller, 300- to 400-acre growers to the 10,000- to 15,000-acre growers—step off the cliff. And it’s worked really well for them. I was really concerned about some of the larger growers, but I found that they had the management ability and the resources to make it happen. And once they understood what they were doing and why they were doing it, they were very successful.
And I think that’s something that most people don’t believe. I get that thrown in my face almost every day. “I can’t do that—I have too big an operation.” And I really enjoy throwing it back—”Well I know somebody who has.” Those successful large growers have not necessarily added more hired men or anything. The one thing that they have added—if they’ve made a mistake or a failure—they’ve had to employ a large number of people for a short period of time to hand-weed a field. If they made a mistake, that’s the only fix there is.
John: I’m struggling with this a little bit myself as well. So, when you use the words “stepping off a cliff,” are you talking about eliminating 100 percent of all herbicide applications right out of the gate? What does that mean, exactly?
Michael: All pesticide applications.
John: Aren’t you going to lose your crop to potential disease and insect pests when you do that?
Michael: When you do that, you’d better have read that book that I just suggested (Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease – Datnoff, Elmer, Huber )—so that you understand that you need to have the right micronutrient balance to keep that plant healthy enough to protect itself. And you can do that through starter fertilizers, foliar feedings—multiple foliar feedings—you can pull it off.
John: What are some of the failures of growers who have tried to do this, and what has been their degree of success?
Michael: By and large, I have had all successes. I’m trying to think of a failure, but I really can’t think of any. I make sure they really understand and know what they’re doing when they do it. I’ve had a few where they missed a field or two, timing-wise—a rain caught them and they didn’t get the weeds taken care of when they should have. But they were able to get it cleaned up—to the point where it did not suppress yield.
John: Wow. How do their yields compare?
Michael: I think that their yields have been going up. That’s what’s been somewhat shocking. I want to be sure it’s attributed to that—not just necessarily a good growing season. Because we’ve had some good growing seasons recently. But their yields have continued to climb quite rapidly. They’ve moved to a different yield plateau.
John: So you’re saying that their yields are actually higher now than they were when they were using herbicides and pesticides regularly?
John: Well, that’s exciting, because those are the same types of things that we’ve observed in the fruit- and vegetable-production world. And those are really the types of regenerative systems that we seek to create and to establish, and I absolutely agree with you that those are possible.
From a management perspective, the one piece we often do a bit differently on fruit and vegetable crops we work on is that we don’t usually advise people to “step off the cliff,” to borrow your terminology. Rather, we advise growers to manage nutrition and to regenerate soil health to a higher plateau of performance—to the point where growers earn the right to eliminate pesticides. Then, all of a sudden, we don’t have problems with powdery mildew anymore. We don’t have problems with spider mites anymore. We don’t have problems with leafhoppers anymore. When we get to that much higher plateau, and we no longer have the problems, then we start cutting and eliminating pesticide applications.
It seems a bit scary to me—when you’re managing a crop that is really valuable—to suggest eliminating all pesticide applications immediately. But obviously, you’ve been successful in doing so.
Michael: Yes, it’s worked. And it was really scary when I first started doing that. But I’ve learned the few things that you have to be sure to accomplish: getting the soil as healthy as you can, and helping the plants be as healthy as you can. And that’s pretty hard to do when stepping off the cliff. But it can be done.