Know your Produce: Pesticide Practices at The St. Joe’s Farm

By Molly MacDonald, Dietetic Intern Summer 2016

Pesticide Practices

Any farmer or avid gardener can tell you how annoying it is to have all their hard work literally eaten away by insects and pests. And while some go for the RoundUp or any commercial insecticide on the shelves at Home Depot, here at The St. Joe’s Farm, using natural pesticides, only when necessary, is the go-to. And who are the usual suspects here on The Farm? Well, this year we’re dealing with white flies (pictured above), the occasional flea beetle and the infamously well-camouflaged hornworms, who always enjoy a good meal.

Pesticides, which could be either naturally or synthetically derived, are substances that terminate, repel or alter the functioning of a pest. Natural pesticides, which are primarily used in organic farming practices, could be anything from natural soaps and detergents, to sulfur sprays, or even treating crops with non-pathogenic bacteria.

For instance, when those pesky bugs start making their mark on good produce, The St. Joe’s Farm Manager Amanda Sweetman typically reaches for one of the most-widely used, natural pesticides in organic farming. It is a little microbe known as Bt (which stands for bacillus thuringiensis) that is naturally found within the soil. It thrives off of feeding on larvae and can even produce toxins that can destroy the stomach lining of the insects that eat it. And while its effects sound very unpleasant, it is harmless for humans to consume! The National Organic Program (NOP), overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), follows rigorous standards and regulations of these pesticides to ensure they are safe to consume.

Regardless, pesticides are not loosely used on St. Joe’s Farms. In fact, a lot of the time it’s the natural predators, such as birds and beneficial insects, which are relied upon to keep the pest population down. However, if the crops are showing signs of degradation or damage due to insect and pest abuse, then the bacteria-based pesticide, Bt, will only be used on those damaged crops, specifically. You can think of the pesticide practice here at St. Joe’s as being like an antibiotic treatment. Physicians will avoid prescribing antibiotics unless the patient truly shows signs of needing it; that’s how the plants and produce are cared for here at The Farm.

While this is one way to care for your crops, there are so many other techniques and bug repellants out there. In fact, some people make their own natural insecticides at home! Do you have a garden or farm at home? Try using these techniques to keep your produce looking beautiful!

Healthy Farms Mean Healthy Communities

by Vivianne Swart, Dietetic Intern Summer 2016

Healthy Communities

In recent years there has been a movement to increase urban farming, and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital System is right on trend. Although most people think of farming as a distant activity done out in the country, small plots of land that are used well can provide food for communities through farmer’s markets or places like Food Gatherers, as food rescue and food bank program serving Washtenaw County, Food Gatherers exists to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in our community. With an employee population of around 5500 people and 550 beds, SJMHS is like a small city in and of itself. In order to increase sustainability, continue innovation, and increase community engagement, the farm was born. The operation continues to grow and change, but one constant is the contribution to wellness for patients, staff, interns, and volunteers.

While people who have worked with the farm can tell you about how great it is and how nice it feels to really connect with food, scientific evidence also backs up their claims. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve emotional wellbeing and relieve stress, increase positive mood, enhance life skills, reduce mental fatigue, and increase concentration. Some studies have suggested that gardeners have a higher life satisfaction and rate their health and physical activity levels higher than non-gardeners; additionally, gardening and related activities have also been linked to improved levels of social, physical, and occupation wellness. In partnership with some area public schools, students have had the opportunity to visit the farm here at SJMHS, which research has linked with improved behavior, encouraging curiosity, engagement, focused learning, and mindfulness. And hospital staff are getting benefits too – research says that offering opportunities for wellness for employees can reduce direct and indirect health care costs and absence; avoid illness or injury; and improve the quality of work life and morale.

But what about farms like the one at SJMHS that are in more densely populated areas? A large piece of research found that green spaces like those found around SJMHS can decrease stress, and that working with nature around you (such as with farming) will increase physical activity levels and stamina, lower chances of heart disease, and make you happier! Through having the farm located right in Ypsilanti, it makes these fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs much more accessible to everyone in the community.

Feeling inspired? Want to experience the farm for yourself? We would love for you to support our farm! Stop by the farmer’s market near the main entrance of SJMHS Wednesdays 11am-1pm, volunteer your time, or spread the word about us.

About Vivianne:

Vivianne Swart is a dietetic intern from the University of Michigan, who spent a week at the farm as a rotation. She has her MPH from the University of Michigan and is a part-time yoga instructor. She is excited to bring her knowledge about sustainability and farming to her profession in nutrition!