Biocontrols: The South African Fruit Growers’ Perspective

“There is never just one solution, there is always more than one way to kill a pest,” Marti Slabber, Managing Director of Hexrivier Sitrus, in Citrusdal, South Africa, said at the inaugural Biocontrols Africa 2017 Conference and Expo in Cape Town.

“Biocontrols don’t work.” That’s the excuse Richard Hutton-Squire, Technical Director of Hutton-Squire Farms PTY, Ltd, said he has heard from many growers who choose not to use biocontrols. Hutton-Squire was part of a roundtable discussion in the concluding session of the inaugural Biocontrols Africa 2017 Conference and Expo in Cape Town.

I was in attendance to cover the two-day conference where growers, distributors, and manufacturers connected and discussed the current status of the biologicals industry in South Africa, and where the industry is going. The event was held at the Southern Sun Cape Sun and was organized by AgriBusiness Global® (a sister publication of American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower®  here at Meister Media Worldwide) in conjunction with the South African Bioproducts Organization (SABO).

But, as Hutton-Squire, an apple grower from Elgin, South Africa, laid out, growers can’t blame the product if it is mishandled along the way. As an example, he used a hypothetical, yet all-too-familiar scenario.

Hutton-Squire described a situation where a biocontrol product is delivered, but the head grower, owner, or orchard manager isn’t around. Then, the tank sits in the hot sun for a while before being moved to the shed by a worker. Then, the biocontrol is not mixed properly before being added to a tank that wasn’t properly cleaned from prior use. So, of course, the product doesn’t work as well as it could. And quite often, he said, the grower blames the product.

“Trying to change minds is a paradigm shift,” he said. “It’s a management problem.”

Hutton-Squire said a lot of growers lack the knowledge of how to apply biocontrols and how to use biologicals as a component to an integrated program.

He encouraged the growers in attendance to not only understand the importance of a strong IPM approach but also to figure out how biological products can be a part of crop management.

“We’re all innovators, find out how to use these,” he said.

Citrus Growing in South Africa
What’s noticeable first and foremost about citrus growing in South Africa is the use of organics and biological products within the industry. What’s absent from the equation that is present in the U.S. is the threat of Asian citrus psyllid. In fact, the biggest threat to the citrus industry in South Africa are thrips.

So integrating a softer approach to pest control and growing — as grower Marti Slabber’s family did — is easier for the South African citrus industry.

Slabber, Managing Director of Hexrivier Sitrus, in Citrusdal, South Africa, said the push to organics on her family farm came following a large red scale infestation that had become organophosphate resistant. Her family’s grove was also plagued by mealybugs and black spot for 10 years.

It’s this delicate balance between pest control and auxiliary pest flare ups made Slabber’s family look to softer programs to get pest pressure under control.

“How do we restore nature balance in the orchard?” she said. “We remove all disruptive sprays and replace them with biologicals.”

It’s this relationship between spray cause and effect which Dave Gerber, former head of Sundays River Citrus Company`s (SRCC) Agronomy Department and currently a citrus grower with Arundel Farm in Leevdrift, South Africa, said he could tell a grower what his or her spray program would be for the year based on what was currently being used for pest control.

“I tell farmers, tell me what you are spraying for thrips and I’ll tell you what the rest of your spray program will be,” he said.

The transition to biocontrols should be made slowly, Gerber said.

“Don’t move too quickly out of your comfort zone,” he said, likening the use of traditional formulations as a source of comfort to growers when problems rise up.

“A couple of problems crop up and the next reaction is to go to a chemical comfort zone” where growers spray out of fear, he said. “The more you spray (conventional products), the more you spray,” he said.

Slabber agreed, saying, “The repercussions against beneficials must count as much as the cost of the pesticide spray.”

On Gerber’s farm he said he wanted to farm responsibly and after seeing some of the effects of conventional sprays, he knew there had to be another way.

Slabber re-emphasized the point. “There is never just one solution, there is always more than one way to kill a pest,” she said.

Gerber said the biocontrol industry in South Africa is full of effective biologic products, there is a great opportunity for growers to adopt softer programs.

“You have to make a conscious decision to move to an IPM program. You have to stick with decisions you’ve made,” he said.

Slabber said in creating an ecological system within her family’s grove, pest populations were much easier to reduce and control.

“Small populations of pests are much easier to control,” she said.

Gerber said it is also important to focus on the ecological system beneath the ground.

“It was amazing how many of our soils were dead, no life in them,” Gerber said.

But, the focus on soil microbiology has paid off. As a soil drench, he uses Trichoderma and humic acid to reduce tree loss.

Slabber calls organic citrus growing “the Rolls Royce.” She said a key to keeping pest populations under control while using a biological program is to scout and scout often. She encouraged growers to do weekly assessments to keep tabs on trends and the presence of predaceous pests. Also, she encouraged growers to prevent false codling moth through rigorous postharvest sanitation.

“I’m worried if I get one (false codling) moth” per trap, Slabber said.

Gerber also said growers should not neglect pruning in terms of pest control.

“A well-pruned orchard will use 20% less product,” he said.

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