What if Obi-Wan Kenobi Was a Farmer?

“Before I attended the scouting sessions, pests and diseases were just mysterious and uncontrollable forces. Now I know they can be monitored and dealt with scientifically. Very empowering!”
— Intern, Simple Gifts Organic Farm, MA

Obi-Wan Kenobi knew a thing or two about the necessity for mentorship, the importance of an interconnected web of masters, and the power of using the elder’s wisdom to bring harmony to the universe.

Young organic farmers like Tyson Neukirch might not be able to call on Obi-Wan Kenobi when they have a problem but they have the next best thing: a team of farming experts led by Katie Campbell-Nelson (University of Massachusetts), Andy Radin (University of Rhode Island), and Ann Hazelrigg (University of Vermont) who created the highly successful New England Fruit and Vegetable Scouting and Pest Alert Network using grant funding from the Northeastern IPM Center’s Partnership Grants program.

Tyson is the Head Grower at The Farm School’s Learn to Farm Program in Athol, Massachusetts. Like all farmers, he can access vast amounts of farming information on the web. However, one-on-one mentorship in old-fashioned scouting techniques from someone with experiential wisdom is hard to come by. He says, “I’m doing one hundred things to run the farm and it is really, really valuable to work with experts who have devoted their career to the study of IPM.”

This is a pervasive problem. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, 26–46% of New England farmers are working without an experienced operator on hand. Extension agents aren’t as common in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont as they used to be, and this is why the fruit and vegetable scouting network fills the gap.

Understanding that experience begets wisdom in any field and all farmers need community to thrive, the New England Fruit and Vegetable Scouting and Pest Alert Network took a two-pronged approach to addressing the problem.

Part 1: Imparting Wisdom – Scouting Training

Katie and her team offered personal on-farm scouting training to thirty organic farmers (see infographic). They found that this was even more effective than field days or workshops because of the relationships that were established.

All of the participating farmers run organic farms and this created two opportunities. First, the team found that existing IPM scouting materials were developed for conventional farms and that the scouting thresholds didn’t work for smaller diversified farms. Therefore the team created nine scouting sheets for popular vegetables. Tyson noted, “Working with Katie’s team brought my knowledge base to a deeper level. Through scouting, I increased my pest control observational skills in the field and that has improved our bottom line.”

“I have a little more courage to actually use pest management techniques properly, instead of just feeling overwhelmed and afraid of all chemical use.”

Second, the team found that while organic-certified pesticides are used on organic farms, most of the farmers had not received any training on how to use them appropriately and efficiently. With guidance, the farmers improved their sprayer mixing and calibration skills for better pest control.

The farmers also learned other IPM techniques that improved their farm’s performance.

  • Monitoring – Using traps for squash vine borer and European corn borer (ECB) resulted in better timing for the release of the parasitoid Trichogramma wasp to control ECB in peppers and sweet corn on three farms.
  • Identification – Knowing what a pest was, including insect life stages, resulted in better pest control.
  • Forecasting – Timely applications resulted in savings. For example, models for cabbage root maggot or USAblight.org for monitoring late blight progress improved cabbage yields and salvaged potato yields respectively on one farm.

Part 2: The Power of Community – Pest Advisories

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi

New England encapsulates a range of climate zone and seasonal fluctuations. Farmers need information that is tailored to reflect the pest pressure on their own farms and in their local area as well as on a regional scale. One-size-fits-all solutions are not helpful in whole-systems like agriculture and especially not for small, diverse farms. But now, New England farmers can work collaboratively by using the force of the internet to make wise choices based on local conditions.

Each Wednesday morning, ten to fifteen trained field scouts (from Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) hold a conference call to review pest data collected from the field during scouting that week with weather station data, Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) pest forecast models, and data from pest tracking sites such as http://cdm.ipmpipe.org/ and http://USABlight.org. Together, the experienced scouts determine which pest alerts should be sent out to over 2,500 growers via mailing lists managed for each state by their respective educators.

“Pest alerts have been tremendously helpful in keeping us alerted to possible problems before they arrive.”

Since project inception, sixty-five pest alerts have been published on a weekly basis during the growing season for growers that reflect this region’s nuanced conditions. The pest alerts cover diverse crops from Swiss chard to sweet corn to strawberries, which reflect New England growers’ interests. For many growers, this is the first time they have received timely regional information on diversified fruit and vegetable crops with input from multiple states.

“We are putting your suggestions into practice on our farm every day.”

IPM is grounded in scientific research applied holistically. This project’s wise mentors trained farmers how to be sensitive to their environment and slight changes in conditions and share that with others to create greater harmony in agricultural production.

If you would like more information about this project and how you can benefit from it please contact Katie Campbell-Nelson at (413) 545-1051.


Partnership Grants are small grants that are designed to catalyze new ideas. This project received a $582,000 USDA-NIFA grant to expand their work and to create a project, “Multi-Level Extension Delivery to Support IPM for Massachusetts Vegetable and Fruit Growers.”