Educating Children on Integrated Pest Management & Biophilic Design

Recently, while conducting a tour of a state-of-the-art 200,000 square foot glass house produce operation located above 45N latitude, one member of the young troop bubbling and bobbing their way among the racks of tomato starters let out a resonant Eyewwww, followed by the statement “ that’s disgusting – I wouldn’t eat from these plants- there’s goo all over them.”

The first thing that popped into my head was Art Linkletter, swear to god, you know the guy from the golden era of TV and radio, and one of the books he wrote entitled Kids Say The Darndest Things.

Less than two minutes in and my segue presents itself – welcome to level one of the IPM game I respond. Bathed in the aura of the strangely supernatural light resulting from the mixture of a still weak pre-solstice sun and the pink luminescence emitted by the combined effect of one million LEDs, at a ratio of four red to one blue, the bobbing heads looking back at me from between the racks resemble the automatons that reside in any number of video games. The environment conducive to a “teachable moment” could not be more perfect.  Glancing over to make eye contact with the teacher and teachers aide, I ask – can anyone tell me what pest management is?

These are urban kids, from a large city, murmuring is all I hear, and mention of bugs. The tour is part of the Environmental Education Ontario (EEON) initiative to inject fundamental ecological concepts into curriculum, pre-school through grade 12. Over the course of the next hour I explain that we do not use pesticides to grow our produce and demonstrate what integrated pest management is: planning, prevention, cultural techniques, monitoring, threshold and action limits, treatment and control methodology, evaluation and the importance and regulatory requirement to maintain accurate records. Although too early in the season to have the Bee colony’s in place or the Escaria et. al. flitting around accompanied by the human hustle and bustle of a modern greenhouse in full operation, they were mightily impressed with the glasshouse ecology which must be dutifully re-created for each annual production cycle. This operation is entirely biocontrol.

The goo, at first repulsive, came to be understood as biofilm, artfully cultured to provide the ecological inoculant to the rock wool cubes within which the still tiny tomato plants would grow. I reminded them that biofilm was the first terrestrial ecology; probably the first marine and aquatic system too, and that many biofilms continue to exist. Having my listeners run their tongues across their teeth served as an apropos example of that mysterious micro-ecology.  The film, I explained, would be protective against the possible infection by pathogenic fungi and other potential rhizosphere pests, serve as a natural defense and allow us to grow the plants without a pesticide treatment. They were surprised that a modern greenhouse operation is as much a zoo operation as it is a food growing operation. They learn by the time the rock wool starters are installed on their coir bolster slabs. the cucumber nursery plants for Escaria, a predator, are growing, in pre-determined formation, ensuring an adequate defense against our primary summer pest – whitefly; overhead and amongst the rows will fly many thousands of bees, pollinators, and through their industry we will produce several thousand tonnes of tomato’s (slicing, cherry, and grape), eggplant, peppers ( yummy sweet to ouch-inducing hot), and green beans.

The now attentive group is presented with an introduction to the potential negative ecological effects associated with importing food from distant locales and what sustainability and food security mean to them and why it is important in the context of  contemporary urban development and design. These kids are already aware of the Ontario Greenbelt plan and Initiative – the Governments regulatory mandate to protect the agricultural and natural environment and manage the cooperation of over 50 municipalities in the greater golden horseshoe area, home to roughly 10 million inhabitants.  They learn the terms Biophilia and Biophilic design and provide some remarkably innovative ideas on how such things could be accomplished- lizards are cool but…, several are aware of concepts like the 100-mile diet and the grow your own movement. We acknowledge it is better to actually grow your own food but for the many who don’t have that option, a local producer is your next best option.

Through our marketing representative, they learn that we sell our product locally and in this way avoid many problems associated with commodity pricing; with a net positive effect on our profit margin. Believe it or not, this is a tech-savvy audience after all, issues related to social media, search marketing, direct to consumer engagement and conversion are discussed, and – yes – we were asked “Is there an app for that?”

Featured image by FotoMediamatic

Chris is a plant biologist and forester who has dedicated over two decades to plant ecology research in addition to acquiring almost 20 years of experience in the garden center and florist sector. He graduated from Trent University with an Honours degree in plant biology and from Sir Sandford Flemming College with a diploma in Forestry. As an ecologist, Chris has been involved in many projects, large and small, from government directed natural resource management audits and climate change research with carbon sequestration in permafrost peatlands to natural vegetation restoration following disturbance. As an garden center and florist business owner in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, he has born witness to the tremendous change that has occurred in the horticulture industry over the past twenty years.

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