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Researchers come to county farm

By Staff | Aug 2, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Laurence Still, of Fauna Photonics, reviews data with Pierce County farmer Paul Overby and Fauna Photonics researcher Salena Helmreich.

A scientific principle similar to what rural North Dakota drivers experience most summer evenings may someday provide a way to support sustainable farming, thanks to research done in a northern Pierce County field this week.

Researchers from Danish company Fauna Photonics set up equipment in a test fifield on the Paul and Diane Overby farm northeast of Wolford for two weeks to study the effectiveness of laser beams to collect information on insects among the crops.

Fauna Photonics researcher Laurence Still explained the technology: “The idea here is that we send a laser beam out in front (of the equipment). When you’re driving at night and see an insect go through the headlights, you see a white flash. It works in a very similar way. We’re sending out laser light, and the insects that go through will reflect that.”

Still said the light beams collect information about the insects such as wing beats per second and other characteristics known by scientists to be unique to their species.

“So, we’ll see,” Still noted, pointing to a bar graph with peaks and valleys on a computer, “This is one of the first things (we can measure), how fast they flap their wings, because we just take out these lines (on the graph) and adjust.”

The General Mills Regenerative Agriculture program coordinated the research project, according to Paul Overby.

“Did I volunteer for this? Yeah, eagerly,” Overby said.

“Because our farm is enrolled in the General Mills Regenerative Ag program and we actually have, on our project field, all the traditional insect surveying methods going on right now, the offer was made to some farmers if they were interested in providing this extra study that’s going on to test out this new equipment,” Overby noted. “And I said, ‘yeah, great, let’s do it.'”

The Overby farm is one of five partnering with General Mills in North Dakota. More than 40 other partner farms are located in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada.

Research scientist Jim Eckberg of General Mills Agronomy Sciences told the Tribune, “We know that biodiversity is really important to farms. Agriculture depends on biodiversity things like pollinators and predators, decomposers all these insects are very important.”

“As a part of General Mills’ recognition that farming and agriculture biodiversity is so important to our supply chain, we’re working to support farmers in cropping systems and practices that build biodiversity on their farm,” Eckberg added.

Eckberg said as a part of General Mills’ efforts, “We’re trying to measure biodiversity on these farms where we’re encouraging these practices. And so, we have an expert out here who’s doing sweep nets and all these classic ways of collecting insects and identifying insects to see if we’re actually improving biodiversity and what practices improve biodiversity, and within that, we’re thinking about ways we can try to streamline data collection of biodiversity. That’s where we partnered with a group out of Copenhagen called Fauna Photonics.”

A traditional insect trap was placed alongside the experimental equipment in each test area.

Fauna Photonics researcher Salena Helmreich stood near a traditional insect trap, a structure of netting and canvas-like material with a point at one end. At the bottom of the point hung a jar filled with clear fluid, specks flfloating at the top. Helmreich said the jar contained alcohol, which preserved the insects falling inside.

“For example, we’ve been seeing a lot of butterflies flying around. And this seems to be selecting (samples) that aren’t butterflies, Helmreich observed, pointing to the jar. “Butterflies don’t like it. They don’t get tricked by it.”

“This (laser technology) will catch the stuff that that (the traditional trap) doesn’t necessarily see, or I’m not getting in my net, or that I happen to scare away before I get to it,” Helmreich said.

Eckberg said the technology to sample insect life on farms was “in an early stage of development.”

However, he said the technology has important implications for farming, and health of the environment.

“Life as we know it depends on having diverse farms farms with biodiversity,” Eckberg said. “And biodiversity is key to providing all these ecosystem services like controlling pests in fields; decomposing crops to create healthy soils, so it’s really about what kind of world we want to live in in the future.”

Overby said he uses software on a tablet computer to monitor conditions such as moisture and weather conditions on his farm, and he looks forward to someday using the device to monitor insects on his farm.

Eckberg said General Mills also partners with a company called Understanding Ag in Bismarck to research and implement regenerative agriculture principles. Eckberg said that although regenerative agriculture is not the same as certified organic farming, “What we’ve seen, over time, is that the incidence on reliance on pesticides in particular pretty much goes away.”

Eckberg said regenerative farming would also provide effective means for farmers to face changing climate and environmental conditions.

“Do we want to live in a world where we’re excessively using pesticides?” Eckberg asked, “Where we’re seeing species like the Monarch (butterfly), which once was a widespread species in North America it’s now lost about 90 percent of its population do we want to see species like this go extinct, and with them, do we want to see the services that they provide, that are so vital to life as we know it, do we want to see them go away?”

“And things that can directly impact the consumer,” Eckberg added, “If farms are using biodiversity to control pests, we’re talking about having less pesticides in our supply chain. It’s not necessarily organic, but with regenerative farming, we’re talking about less reliance on pesticides; we’re talking about more money in farmers’ pockets, less paying for insecticides, and then less exposure to kids and adults alike.”

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