"Farmers have always been inventing new technologies," O'Neil says. "Subsistence farmers invented the plow and domesticated animals and were the first to use pest-resistant plant varieties."
If farmers understand the basics of insect predation, they will come up with new biological control strategies on their own, he says.
"Once farmers know that pests have natural enemies and that those enemies can be used to control them, we will see more attempts at biological control -- more than if biological control remains the sole property of university or government specialists," O'Neil says. "Farmers experiment with the familiar to gain insight on what they don't know."
O'Neil and anthropologist Jeff Bentley of the Panamerican School of Agriculture, Honduras, illustrated the point in a joint project. Bentley taught a class on insect predation to a group of Honduran farmers. Before the course, Maria Hubalda Castro and other farmers in her area thought of ants only as pests to be stomped on or shooed away. After Bentley described the way ants hunt down and kill insect pests, she began to view them in a different light.
"She sat there thinking, 'Hmmm. Ants are predators. I know they like sugar, because I see them in my sugar bowl. Perhaps if I put the sugar on my corn, the ants will come and eat the pests.' Voila! She invents a technology," says O'Neil, "exactly like the ones we here at the university discuss in our professional journals."
Castro sprinkled sugar-water on her corn. Ants and other insect predators came for the sugar, then stayed to eat armyworms. As a result, armyworms ate fewer holes in corn leaves, and Castro's crop was healthier.
O'Neil and Luis Canas, an entomology graduate student, followed up on Castro's findings. For two years they painstakingly measured and compared damage on sugar-treated and untreated corn in test plots planted near Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Their test results bore out Castro's original findings: Apply sugar, bring in predators, and reduce fall armyworm damage.
"Farmers may lack a scientific background and training, but they have a deep appreciation of agriculture," O'Neil says. The process of farmer innovation is similar to the process of experimentation that researchers follow. However, for their results to be accepted throughout the agricultural establishment, researchers must work with farmers much as they do with their professional colleagues.
"Trusting farmers to experiment means that we do not need to give them recipes, but knowledge," O'Neil says. Partnerships between farmers, researchers and Cooperative Extension Service specialists will bring results that none of those groups alone could achieve, he says.
O'Neil says he plans to promote similar cooperative efforts with farmers and home gardeners in the Midwest.
CONTACT: O'Neil, (765) 494-7207; e-mail, Bob_ONeil@entm.purdue.edu
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