Anxiety, IPM, and the Triple Bottom Line

At some point during the winter of my Farm School year, I experienced a shift in the nature of the apprehension I felt about the task of learning to farm. Up until that point, I’d focused acutely on each new skill: move a manure pile with the tractor bucket; chisel out a scarf joint; choose which limb to eliminate from a dormant apple tree. But suddenly—it may’ve been during one of the later crop rotation lessons, or knee-deep in the business planning spreadsheets, or upon examining the myriad lambing risks on the horizon—I was struck with the dizzying realization of just how vast and unwieldy a thing it was I was trying to do. Just as arriving at the top of a rise during a hike to see that the particular hill at hand had been hiding the view of the larger mountain ahead, I felt that in my first few months at the Farm School I’d been working simply to gain the baseline knowledge I needed to even begin to comprehend how much there was to learn: how many skills to on-ramp, how much information to metabolize, how many interlocking systems whose inter- and intra-dynamics I needed to be able to understand. And with that cognitive elevation gain, my apprehension bloomed into a kind of low-grade terror.

It was with this hum of anxiety in the pit of my stomach that I encountered farmer/teacher Tyson Neukirch’s first lesson on integrated pest management, or IPM. That phrase doesn’t sound like a natural stress reliever, but as the unending spring rain sluiced down the farmhouse windows and Tyson carefully delineated the philosophy and methodology of what amounts to a research-driven decision-making framework for holistic crop healthcare, I sensed the hum quieting. Here was a strategy that took the squirming, tangled mass of vegetable production know-how and made it be still, teased apart the strands, and asked each variable to submit to checklists and thresholds and—how beautifully simple—counting. Instead of allowing me to panic constantly that I was, out of ignorance and inexperience, missing some nuance of ecosystem functioning that would lead my crop (and by association, my farm) to ruin, here was a strategy that told me when it was appropriate to panic or not. And then it could tell me what different things I could do to mitigate the problem, so that I could stop panicking entirely!

It turns out I’m not the only person drawn to IPM for this reason. “The nice thing about creating an IPM plan and being on it with monitoring and scouting… is that it actually makes the decision making process way more objective,” Tyson explained when I interviewed him about the method for an article. “And for me, as someone who tends to be a really highly anxious person anyways, [it] really helps me decide, ‘Ok, is it time for an intervention? How are we doing?’ Not, ‘Oh my God I saw one plant that had four cucumber beetles on it, we have to spray everything!’”

Curious to see if I could persuade a publication with a non-farmer readership to publish an article on this extremely effective yet unsexy farming method, I’d pitched an article to the New Food Economy that would make the case to consumers why they should care about IPM. That’s the article I wrote. But what didn’t make it into that article is why I care about IPM: because it tames the terror; because it forces legibility upon a highly complicated and dynamic system; because it makes really good farming technique that’s traditionally been accrued through generations of trial and error accessible to anyone who’s willing to do their homework.

“I think that people who are really good organic farmers and people who are really good conventional farmers, depending on what their crops are, are using the approaches that are delineated within integrated pest management anyways,” Tyson said. Which meant that, through consciously applying IPM, I might stand a chance at someday achieving that level of stewardship. I could breathe a little easier, knowing that there was a framework—and experts behind that framework—that could help me avoid environmental or economic catastrophe, and perhaps even have a positive impact.

I spoke with some of those experts for the article: Katie Campbell-Nelson, Lisa McKeag, and Sue Scheufele of the vegetable team at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Extension. In trying to talk out what might make IPM accessible to consumers, the idea of complexity kept coming up. The simplest marketing finds a villain for every hero: conventional versus organic, synthetic versus natural, CAFO versus free-range. The dichotomy makes the consumer choice easy, but it also requires a drastic simplification—something that IPM refuses. And while IPM challenges consumers to undertake “an embrace of nuance,” as Lisa put it, making their choices more complicated, it provides farmers with clearcut tools for managing that nuance, making their choices more straightforward.

Living in a constant state of extreme anxiety is not sustainable. The beauty of IPM is that it not only enables agricultural sustainability along environmental and economic lines, but it also sanctions the psychological wellbeing necessary for farmers to keep doing what they do for many, many years. The question of how to achieve this third bottom line of sustainability is one of the puzzles that drew me to study agriculture in the first place, and it’s one of the puzzles that keeps my curiosity ignited as I continue those studies: through farming, through writing, and through graduate studies in Agricultural Education.

The point of agriculture is to sustain people; that’s equally true of the people who grow the food as the people who eat it, despite a narrative fixation on the latter concern. And despite my own urge to cater to that fixation, ultimately, I don’t know if it matters whether or not consumers care about IPM. It certainly matters less, I think, than whether farmers care about it. It’s my hope, though, that consumers will care about farmers. If they know that IPM helps farmers, then maybe that’s enough.