For Farmers, It's a Bug-Eat-Bug World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ground war marches on at Kaz Iwamoto's Ventura County farm.

It is a battle of sneak attacks and surgical strikes, a take-no-prisoners struggle involving millions of soldiers, some of whom liquefy their enemies before eating them from the inside out.

And so far, the "good guys" are winning.

Iwamoto is in the sixth year of a micro-war being waged by insects in fields of strawberries, green beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. The "good" bugs are set loose on a singular mission: search out and destroy their crop-munching enemies.

A growing number of farmers like Iwamoto across the state and nation are turning to biological controls as consumers, environmentalists and government regulators demand decreased use of chemical pesticides.

Nowhere is the surge more evident than in Ventura County, home to a handful of pioneer bug breeders and largely considered the hotbed for an industry expected to expand well into the next decade.

There are seven insectaries in the county, including grower cooperatives in Fillmore and Santa Paula established in the 1920s to supply biological pest controls to local farmers.

"Ventura County is the mecca for insectaries," said Brett Chandler, assistant manager for Santa Paula's Associates Insectary, which produces up to 2 million insects and mites each day for its 250 members.

"We have the crops here and the climate that lend themselves to these practices," he said. "But we've also had people willing to give it a go for the long haul, because it is a long-haul commitment."

Like his father before him, Iwamoto once blanketed the land with toxic pesticides, a more expensive practice that is increasingly coming under fire in this era of tougher regulations and greater public scrutiny. Today his crops are grown pesticide-free after years of working to create a delicate ecosystem in which the beneficial bugs keep the harmful bugs in check.

"We just felt like we had to put everything back in balance," said Iwamoto, 48, who every two weeks unleashes thousands of beneficial insects to control everything from aphids to white flies.

"I am not anti-conventional farming; I did it for years and I know it can be done in a safe and effective manner," he added. "Philosophically as well as economically, we just felt this was the way to go."

There is no way of telling how many growers rely to some degree on biological controls, and usage varies from crop to crop.

Industry leaders estimate, for example, that as many as 70% of the state's avocado growers employ beneficial insects in conjunction with insecticides. The estimate is closer to 50% for the state's citrus growers.

Last year, Ventura County growers released an estimated 3.8 billion beneficial insects, valued at $3.2 million, on about one-third of the county's 2,100 ranches.

Worldwide revenue for insectaries is only a fraction of sales in the pesticide industry--between $100 million and $200 million a year versus $9 billion for chemicals.

Still, there is money to be made.

At Ventura's Rincon-Vitova, considered by many to be the father of California's commercial insectary industry, sales of parasitic and predatory insects come to about $750,000 annually.

The Rincon-Vitova bug farm, created by pest control advisor Jack Blehm and entomologist E.J. Dietrick, has been a pioneer in the field, branching out over the years to supply pest-devouring insects to hundreds of customers worldwide.

Its headquarters is disarmingly unassuming.

It is housed in an old migrant labor camp, in the shadow of the slow-bobbing oil derricks along California 33 between Ojai and Ventura. The sour smell of meal--and of millions of insects hatching and mating and dying--permeates the compound.

The odor is even stronger in the rooms where bug breeders rear 15 million flies a week. One room is stacked with gray tubs crawling with maggots, another with the insects in pupa form encased in cocoons barely bigger than a grain of rice.

The cocoons are thrown in with parasitic wasps, which pierce the casings and lay eggs. The young wasps feed on the pupae and are sold to ranchers just as they are emerging from the cocoons. Once they are out, the wasps' sole mission in life is to seek out and destroy more fly pupae.

Bug production has had some odd fringe benefits.

Movie makers have ordered batches of flies for various motion pictures. And someone called the other day to order 2 pounds of maggots for a reality-based television show.

"Only they wanted to give them back after they used them," said entomologist Stefan Long, a Cornell University-trained expert in the field of fly parasites. "That was OK with us, we can use them."

The company is not just about producing bugs, said Jan Dietrick, general manager of Rincon-Vitova and daughter of its co-founder. Built into its philosophy is a not-so-subtle pitch aimed at reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides by creating ecosystems that build up natural habitats, so beneficial bugs can thrive.

In fact, Dietrick created a nonprofit institute in 1996 to carry that message forward.

"We're trying to teach farmers not to nuke everything on their borders," said Dietrick, standing in a room with half-inch-long predators so voracious that they must be reared in separate cells to prevent them from eating each other.

It takes time and patience to control pests this way.

Farmers accustomed to quickly knocking down infestations in their fields must learn to wait weeks before seeing results. And because pesticides often kill helpful bugs along with the harmful, farmers must often cease widespread chemical applications while waiting for the beneficial insects to establish themselves.

Add to that the need to cultivate a habitat for the insect armies and the precise calculations required to properly release the beneficial bugs, and growers new to the process can quickly find themselves overwhelmed.

That is where companies like Santa Paula-based Buena Biosystems come in. Promoting a state-of-the-art integrated pest management system, technical advisors help growers launch bio-control programs or help maintain those already in place.

The company was launched a decade ago after Blehm and his son Jake split from Rincon-Vitova. While pushing a range of beneficial insects, company leaders are not shy about coupling that approach with what they call environmentally sound insecticides and other products.

With about $1 million in annual sales and 500 customers on four continents, Buena Biosystems is one of the nation's largest bug producers.

But as with the industry overall, the company's sales have flattened out in recent years. Blehm estimates that between 1985 and 1995 demand for his products was growing by as much as 25% a year. He said the growth rate is closer to 10% now, prompting efforts to find new and better bugs to add to the company's pest-crunching portfolio.

In the only air-conditioned room at his shop, bug breeders are experimenting with the franklinothrip, a voracious predator that literally sucks the life out of pests in avocado groves and vineyards.

For Iwamoto, it has come down to a combination of products. Green lacewings patrol his green beans while two kinds of wasps buzz the tomatoes and cucumbers. The insect armies feed on native grasses and flowers left uncut as a food source.

"We didn't set out to be innovative; it just turned out that way," he said. "It's not an overnight solution and we're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction."

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