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Carefully designed polyculture systems, grown on small farms or even in suburban yards, could self-limit pest problems and gross up to $90,000 per acre, says Joe Kovach, head of
Kovach has planted four different polyculture systems, or “modular ecological designs,” each combining the same wide mix of high-value fruits and vegetables, annuals and perennials, tall crops and short ones, into 45-by-60-foot plots.
The goal: To see which system works best based on yield, economics and pest reduction — and to make, by selling retail, $10 per linear foot, or $90,000 to $100,000 per acre.
“We’ve known in pest management that polyculture systems seem to have fewer pest problems than monocultures, and when there are problems, they’re usually less severe,” Kovach said. “We wanted to see if we could come up with a primarily fruit-based system that, if we arranged it in the correct way, would see fewer pest problems.”
At the same time, though, “With a goal of $10 per linear foot, we’ve got to be productive,” he said. “We can’t mess around.”
After two years of research, the system seems to be working. Kovach has seen few pest problems, and has only had to treat the apple trees with insecticides. The rest of the crops have been grown organically.
From an economic standpoint, Kovach estimates that he’s already paid off his $25,000 initial investment from the productivity of the system. Last year, he harvested $8-$9 per foot of row of strawberries, and was getting $26 per foot of row of grape tomatoes -- three to four times the produce of standard tomatoes for the same amount of energy input.
Kovach will present his findings at Farm Science Review on Sept. 18 at in the
Polycultures, as opposed to monocultures, grow two or more crops together, not just one.
Kovach’s four designs, even more diverse than typical polycultures, combine apples, peaches, snap peas, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and edamame soybeans. But each design tests a different arrangement. The first has solid rows, with each row having a single crop, and the crop height switching from row to row: for example, a row of high apple trees, a row of low strawberries, a row of high peach trees, a row of low tomatoes.
“There’s some hint that architecture might have an impact on insect pests that occur,” Kovach explained, “so we decided we’d use tree and shrub crops alternated with lower-growing crops.”
The second design mixes more than one crop within a row but keeps the high crops and low crops together in their own rows. Apples, peaches and raspberries, for example, would line up in a row, then soybeans, strawberries and tomatoes in the next, as a way to roadblock infestations.
“The concept,” Kovach said, “is that insect pests seem to move down rows. So if you’re an apple pest, you might stop at the peaches. A peach pest might stop at the raspberries. A raspberry pest at the blueberries. And so forth.”
The third design goes a step further. It mixes the crops within a row and also alternates heights in the row. A single row might grow apples then strawberries, peaches then soybeans, raspberries then tomatoes. Kovach calls it the “checkerboard” system.
The fourth design adds raised beds to the equation — “kind of our souped-up future strategy,” Kovach said — with mixed rows planted within. Researchers found that raised beds tend to be the most productive of the four modular designs.
All four designs employ drip irrigation, disease-tolerant and -resistant varieties, fencing against rabbits and woodchucks, staggered planting dates for the annuals and maturity dates for the perennials (allowing for early, mid- and late-season harvest and season-long production), and newer, less-toxic pesticides if and as needed, with sustainability, not 100-percent organic production, the goal.
“Once we find this optimum design — and this is where the ‘modular’ aspect comes in — we’ll know how much food you’ll get from one plot,” Kovach said. “Maybe one is all you need for personal use. Or maybe you run a roadside stand; you could have maybe three in a series. Or maybe you sell at a farmers’ market; you could have, say, six or eight.”
Small farms near cities could gain from such setups, Kovach said. Fewer inputs, a steady lineup of high-value crops, and proximity to thousands of hungry consumers would make the farms even more successful.
“People are becoming more and more health conscience and are interested in sustainability. Thirty percent of the population are concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” said Kovach. “That’s the group we are mainly targeting with this project.”
Homeowners, whether for food, hobby or both, could use the modules too.
“We have a lot of these suburban houses that have five-acre lots,” Kovach noted. “People spend a lot of time mowing their lawn. This could be an opportunity to do something else.”
Finally, he said, the modules would ramp up local production, a plus in terms of tastier food and lower transportation costs.
The test plots — 16 in all, four replications of all four designs, covering a total of 1.5 acres — lie on OARDC’s
Farm Science Review is sponsored by Ohio State University Extension, the Ohio Agricultural Research and