Invasive insects taking a bite from N.Y. farms, gardens
Like many berry growers in the Southern Tier, Dave Johnson, of Apple Hill Farms, in Binghamton, was aware of a new Asian pest threatening soft fruit in 2010 on the West Coast.
"I thought 'Yeah, in the natural course of things, it could be years, even decades before it gets here. We'll have time to develop some, you know, strategies,'" he said. "Then, bam! It's right here. Within two years."
There was scant time for strategies: The new West Coast pest — the spotted wing fruit fly — landed in the late summer of 2012 at berry farms from Broome County west to Chemung County and points north. While the insect prefers berries, it also damages other kinds of fruit and wine grapes.
Johnson and dozens of other berry farmers watched in dismay as thousands of raspberries and blueberries shriveled on the bush.
The arrival of a new invasive insect species took another bite out of the region's agriculture. Increasingly, growers from farms to backyard gardens are facing dozens of new invaders, reducing the supply of locally grown food for consumers and pushing up prices when insect damage reduces harvests.
The speed that new invasive pests arrive in New York has accelerated, and the consequences can be huge for the state's agriculture. In just two growing seasons, the spotted wing fruit fly has put at risk $325 million worth of small fruit, grapes and berries grown in New York and thousands of farm jobs.
"It was pretty shocking," said Rick Reisinger, owner of Reisinger's Apple Country, in Watkins Glen. "At first, I just thought it was drought."
The new invader infests berries as they grow on the bush. The more common fruit fly attacks overripe or damaged fruits and vegetables of all varieties throughout the summer.
"(The berries) are still white," said Peter J. Jentsch, of Cornell University's Integrated Pest Management program. "I mean, they're not even pink."
Jentsch said the infestation poses no unusual health threat to consumers visiting U-Pick farms or area farmers' markets. "It's no different that way than any other kind of fruit fly."
But the results of the insect-damaged fruit can be devastating to growers looking to sell attractive, juicy berries, bountiful and fresh from the orchard.
"You get too many mushy and unappealing ones," Johnson said. "I mean, you can still eat them, but who wants to?"
The first year of the local infestation, Johnson estimates 25 percent of his crop was destroyed by the insect. Reisinger said his business lost $10,000 in 2012. Both growers have recovered from the invasive insect and have good berry crops this season.
Fewer berries for consumers
Statewide, Cornell University estimated the damage to commercial berry growers at $7 million in 2012. The past winter's bitter cold appears to have reduced infestation this season. The fly began chowing down four weeks later than in previous summers, said Juliet Carroll, coordinator of New York's integrated pest management program for fruit.
Another impact of the infestation that peaks in late summer is New York growers eliminate late season raspberries and blueberries from their fields. That reduces late berry crops and cuts farm employment, Carroll said.
During the past two years, with Cornell University at the lead, local berry farms have adopted aggressive techniques designed to keep the bugs at bay.
Some strategies — such as fine-textured netting placed over the bushes to keep the flies away —may be too expensive to consider, some growers said.
"You might as well just build a house, put 'em in there," Reisinger said.
Other tactics, such as spraying with insecticides, approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are being tested and rotated, with but limited success.
Cornell also is working with growers to set up effective "Trap and Kill" stations, which lure the pests to a screened-in area and destroy the flies there. Traps in the Southern Tier have found the insect in Chemung, Tioga and Steuben counties. Infestations are expected to increase in September and put late-season fruit crops at high risk for damage.
Labor intensive controls
The most successful safeguards appear to be labor intensive — regularly watering the plants spread out over acres of land, washing the berries thoroughly, picking the fruit just as it ripens and refrigerating it immediately.
The bug's berry of choice also can be used against large-scale infestation, Jentsch said.
Cornell's field research shows the fly prefers raspberries, with blueberries about half as likely to be infested. Lower on the list are strawberries, cherries, peaches and plums, and other thin-skinned fruits.
That preference means growers can use their raspberry bushes as a line of defense, treating them with safe insecticides to prevent early infestation — and prevent the bugs from migrating to nearby blueberry bushes as the season progresses, Jentsch said.
Similar pest-control techniques have worked well in the wine-grape growing Finger Lakes region, where growers planted a particular thin-skinned variety of Pinot Noir grapes more attractive to the spotted wing fruit fly's palate. The insects ignored another Pinot variety nearby, he said.
So far, the success of the techniques this year has been difficult to determine, but early reports suggest a low infestation this season and reduced damage. However, infestations are still possible this year, with a berry-picking season that could extend until mid-September locally or as late as mid-October in some regions of the state.
Control — and future infestations — remains a big question mark. Too little still is known about the insect, to predict how long it will be a factor in berry crops, Jentsch said.
Cornell University's Integrated Pest Management program recently received a $170,000 New York Farm Viability Institute grant to hire field technicians and provide growers with information on controlling the invasive insects, according to Jentsch.
But for growers, the real question is how long they can sustain unchecked havoc caused by the insect.
"It's the uncertainty of the whole thing," Reisinger said. "When do we say, 'Well, we just won't grow any more?'"
Threats to gardens, crops
New York produces about $3 billion of field crops, fruits and vegetables annually. Invasive insects are chewing up some its top agriculture products and backyard garden produce. Here is a look:
• Khapra beetle: Stored grains
• Light brown apple moth: Berries, field crops, fruits
• Summer fruit tortrix: Various fruit, ornamental trees, flowering shrubs
• False codling moth: Grapes, stone fruits, various field crops
• European grapevine moth: Grapes, berries
• Brown marmorated stink bug (shown above): various fruits and vegetables.
• Winter moth: Tree fruit
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