Slugs, Roseannadanna, and Agroecology as a Moving Target.

Healthy seed grass on the left. The crop on the right has been eaten by slugs. Photo by Marie Bowers Stagg
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Vice has an interesting piece on the historical causes of current problems with slugs on Oregon farms.

The author, Leah Sottile details how a pair of developments created the conditions for the current slug invasion. A horrible traffic accident in 1988 caused by smoke from a nearby field burning eventually led to a ban on field burning as a way to control pests on Oregon farms. Later as farmers tried to move to greener practices, no-till cultivation became popular. Instead of plowing a field up to break pest cycles, the soil is left undisturbed and the weeds are generally controlled with herbicides instead. The problem in a wet environment like Oregon’s uber-fertile Willamette Valley is that you’ve now created a wonderland for slugs.

For those of us old enough to remember, one can’t help but be reminded of Gilda Radner’s classic SNL character Rosanne Roseannadanna, whose signature signoff was, “Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something—if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

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For those people who’d like to think that there is some secret way of farming without any ecological trade offs that’s being held back by dreaded “Big Ag” they lay out how each solution to any given problem brings it’s own set of trade offs and new problems.

No amount of squishing slugs could help Sweeney’s farm, he says. The farm lost 10 percent of a field of ryegrass planted last fall. “That land should be paying rent,” he says. “It’s gotta pay taxes.”

Sweeney has been vocal about conservation efforts in the Willamette Valley, but even he’s reluctant to embrace no-till. “Fact is, within the county there’s probably only two or three growers that do it, and I don’t know why they do it… God bless ’em,” he says. “It’s just too much chance of losing the whole thing.”

Tilling or no tilling, the way Willamette Valley farmers see it, there’s just one way to lick the slug problem: bait. And as far as baiting goes, there are essentially two primary varieties, and both present issues. Most farmers use a kind called metaldehyde—a substance that, in Britain, has been restricted after it was found in drinking water. Metaldehyde won’t kill earthworms, which is important because healthy soil means having a lot of earthworms.

Problem is, earthworms love eating metaldehyde.

In case you missed that: Slug bait gets eaten by earthworms. It doesn’t kill them. But by them stealing it, no slugs die either. So a farmer like Crawford, who says “we have more nightcrawlers than you could imagine,” could spend all day baiting his fields for slugs, and in a couple of days, all of it could be gone because of earthworms.

Farmers don’t want to use pesticides if they don’t have to. They are expensive and the environment that they most impact is the land the farmers own. The whole thing is a balancing act, a moving target, pick your metaphor. But if there were any environmentally cost free options that penciled out on a farmer’s balance sheet, they’d jump at them.

The article also highlights another issue in agriculture that I think is under appreciated. The lack of funding for extension services.

Nicole Anderson, who works for OSU’s agricultural extension service, says Oregon State is pleading for $16 million from the legislature, part of which would fund slug research.

Extensions like Anderson’s historically provided farmers with the latest scientific information to help them do their job. Where Sam Sweeney remembers five or six extension agents being at his disposal, now there’s just Anderson. She says she’s responsible for aiding farmers in up to four counties.

“It means that farmers sometimes depend more and more on private consultants” for new information, she says. “The problem there is they’re often tied to sales of products. It makes unbiased scientific based information harder to get at.”

When it comes to slugs, Anderson tries to be an ally to farmers. But “when there’s less bodies, there’s less ability to generate information as quickly as it was in the past.”

It’s barely discussed, but restoring public funding for extension services should be on everyone’s top ten list for making agriculture more sustainable.

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