by Skip Connett
As Austin’s third hottest summer surrendered to a near-record-wet fall, it set in motion a little perfect storm at river farm. In a matter of days, beautiful healthy rows of summer and winter squash, pumpkins, cucumbers turned sickly brown, their skeletal leaves and worm-filled fruit staring back at us like an early Halloween trick.How does this happen to an experienced farmer? The fault likes in climate change, bad luck, and a stubborn belief that the next season will be somehow different and that change is not permanent.Our first encounter with the melon worm tore up the farm about five years ago. We planted a half acre of winter squash in late July and went on vacation for a week in August. When we came back, our farm manager struggled to explain how we lost the entire crop under his watch. That little green worm with a black stripe down its spine was a very different breed from its brassica-loving cousin — the slow, common-place cabbage loopers we were so familiar with.
Almost overnight it had spread like a slow fire through the entire field, starting with the foliage and finishing up with the fruit for desert.Like the jet fighter it resembles, this sharp-winged invader from South Texas has been migrating farther north each summer and retreating later each fall. If winters get too mild, it just may stay with us year-round.Rather than surrender and stop growing cucurbits for fall, we've tried new tactics: moving crops around in longer rotations, experimenting with new cover crops, disking up the damaged crop as soon as possible. Our results were mixed. Some years were better than others and depends on how effective we are at early detection and pulling out the one reliable countermeasure in the organic farmer’s arsenal — Bt. Safe for human consumption, this natural bacteria must be sprayed on a plant’s leaves in hopes the worms will ingest it and die. It works fairly well. Except when it rains and gets washed away.Melon worms love the rain and warm weather. As of September 31, more than 10 inches has fallen for the month at the river farm. The month has ended. The rain has not. And 90-degree temps are still in the forecast.Such are the makings of our the little perfect storm:Melon moths descending like stealth bombers and laying their eggs at night. The farmer loading a 30-pound sprayer on his back the next morning and unleashing his invisible bacteria.By afternoon, the gathering clouds unleashing their cleansing rains.There you have it: Lay. Spray. Rinse and repeat. Day after day. Week after week. Moths 1, Farmer 0.What can an organic farmer do?Sow. Then sow some more. Wait. Pray. And, if possible, supplement the shares with produce from the few other organic farmers in Austin.So bear with us as your farmers as they weather this not-so-minor glitch in the season. I never thought I would say this a month ago but let’s hope the sun returns soon.