A good pest-control program can potentially save a cultivation facility millions of dollars
Todd Statzer has done just about everything when it comes to the world of agriculture.
“I went from being an entrepreneur to being a researcher to actually being a regulator,” he says. “I’ve grown every plant known to man over the past 35 years, many of them just so we could kill them and see what happens.”
Statzer has a degree in crop sciences from the University of Illinois with an emphasis in plant biology and plant pathology and managed one-third of the research greenhouses on the Urbana-Champaign campus, before being hired by the state to work as pesticide inspector for the Bureau of Medicinal Plants.
Today, Statzer oversees the Environmental Sciences Division of urban-gro, which uses beneficial insects as a cornerstone of its integrated pest management (IPM) programs. He says when the job offer came, he jumped at the opportunity to “help again.”
“As an inspector I was not allowed to help, I was only allowed to write people up,” he says. “When urban-gro offered me a chance to be national, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to expand my knowledge and help people across the U.S. and now, to a degree, across Canada as well.”
A self-described “buggie,” Statzer preaches a “holistic approach” to pest control and includes diseases like powdery mildew, bud rot and mold among the problems he and his team address.
“It all ties in to how they are growing, what kind of fertigation system they are using, and then what we do is help them tie that into IPM,” he says.
Statzer’s division now oversees 135 programs nationwide, helping cultivation sites tackle pest problems while staying in compliance with the webs of local and federal laws that govern their facilities and what they can and can’t use to manage pests.
Statzer recently spoke with Marijuana Venture about the best ways to address and control pests and other problems facing cannabis growers.
Marijuana Venture: What do you mean when you say a “holistic approach” to pest management?
Todd Statzer: When we look at a holistic program, what we do that is different from a lot of companies is when we get a client in, we learn everything about that grow. What kind of pots? What size pots are they using? How many plants per table, per room? How do those rotations work? As they go from propagation to veg to flower, how does that cycle through their facility? That allows us to sit down and create an actual program of standard operating procedures.
We figure out exactly how much chemical they need, exactly how much biocontrols they need. Do they need the beneficial insects every three weeks? Or if they have an outbreak of, for example, aphids, they are going to need three different beneficials every week for three weeks, so we set all that up. What we’re doing, in a manner of speaking, is entering into a partnership with that particular grow to make sure that the master grower or the director of cultivation have time to do all those daily tasks they need to do — harvesting, pruning, watering, fertilizing, all those other things — and then we lift that weight of IPM. We have a much bigger scope of how to do it and what succeeds, so we can save them time, money and compliance issues.
Colors of cannabis
Even with decades of experience in horticulture and integrated pest management, Todd Statzer learns new things all the time, especially when working with cannabis plants.
For example, Statzer recently witnessed spider mites seeking out cultivars that shared an interesting characteristic: a color that leaned toward the yellow side.
“You have to remember, insects work off pheromones; they pick up odors, they pick up colors,” he says.
Odd as it might sound, Statzer says he has seen spider mites jump multiple benches and plants in order to get to ones with a color they favor.
“I had a facility where every fourth table was the same strain among 10 different strains and literally they would jump over three tables to get to the one that had the same strain,” he says. “And that strain happened to be a lighter green and it turned yellow earlier as it reached the end of production. It was like a magnet.
“Very bizarre watching that happen,” he says.
— Brian Beckley
MV: It seems the easiest way to stay in compliance is to use as few chemicals as possible and turn more toward beneficial insects. Is that something you recommend?
TS: We can do an all-chemical program or we can do an all-biologics program or we can do what we call true IPM, which basically is having all the tools in the toolbox. If you have an outbreak or an introduced pest problem, as we call it, a lot of times you need to step on it now. You need to have those chemicals.
But when we talk about chemicals in cannabis, it’s completely different from ornamental horticulture. We’re talking about oils like peppermint oil and clove oil and naturally occurring funguses that actually stop that insect from beginning to molt, for instance. So we’re not trying to poison them like we did 20 years ago, we’re trying to either interrupt a grow process or we’re basically putting something on their skin that keeps them from being able to get air in and they asphyxiate and die. It’s not about toxicity anymore, it’s about knowing what kind of pesticide you can use that is safe.
The perfect example is Eagle 20, a chemical that was used in vegetables, and it’s totally safe to eat, but when you put flame to it, it produces cyanide gas. And it’s not too good to be inhaling cyanide gas. It’s things like that that we look at what that chemical is and what it’s mode of action is and then select the softest pesticides we can use.
But our whole base of our program is organic pesticides and beneficials with an emphasis being on beneficial-first.
MV: What type of mistakes do people commonly make when using beneficial insects?
TS: The biggest mistake people make is they wait until they see pests and then they call. At that point, in order for it to work, we would have to quadruple — or even more — our rates to even hope to catch up. That’s the biggest thing with beneficials; people need to think it’s a proactive insurance program that you probably release every three weeks to make sure you never have a breakout. And if you are all-beneficial, boy you could miss one of those for two weeks and — BAM! — the problem starts. That’s really the biggest mistake we see with beneficials: starting too late.
MV: What insects do you find to be the most beneficial to cannabis growers?
TS: It depends on what insects we’re going after. But let’s say we’re after foliar aphids. We’re going to use one that is called an Aphidus colemani, which is a parasitic wasp that lays an egg in the aphid. Eventually that egg is going to eat its way out. That aphid will actually become a mummy.
Then we would use another one called an Aphidoletes aphidimyza, which is just a predator that is going to eat the aphid. If we don’t get it with one, we get it with the other. We call that two different “modes of action,” because they are controlling that insect in different ways.
So it depends on what they’re fighting. Some are generalists that will go after anybody; we try to stay away from those because in cannabis, since they eat the good ones too and they eat each other. We generally use beneficials that are targeted, meaning they like particular insects over others. By using those, we know we’re using the best beneficial to control the right pest.
MV: In your experience, how does an IPM program for cannabis differ from traditional agriculture?
TS: There’s a few ways. One is that we have three-to-five times the amount of vegetative matter in a cannabis plant than in a 12-inch bedding plant. And they’re much thicker, the leaves are thicker and plants kind of grow into a canopy. So it’s harder to make sure you’re getting enough penetration into that canopy, especially with pesticides. That changes the rate of beneficials you need, because you’ve got much more plant material.
And the other side of that is indoor grows, where we are actually creating the perfect environment for these pests and diseases, as opposed to growing outdoors or even in a traditional greenhouse. When those break out, the problems break out faster because the biology of the pest and the beneficial speeds up when you are getting that exact climate that they need, and that is basically what we generate in warehouses. That affects the numbers you have to put in, the timing that you use for those introductions and when you would switch off.
For example, in the early stages of the plant when it’s just green growth and they are putting on leafy materials, we will do a heavier chemical program, but then as it goes into flower, that’s when we really start to go into the beneficials. The good news about that is we have found very safe chemistries that actually, by the time veg and go through eight to nine weeks of flower, there’s nothing left in that plant of any pesticide, not even a trace.
Be proactive with IPM
Whether growers are starting a new grow or converting an existing grow facility, Todd Statzer advises cultivators to invest in their integrated pest management right from the outset.
For new grows, Statzer says it is important to stay on top of pest control to prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place.
“When you think of starting out in a new building, the first thing to do is to start out proactively,” he says. “Get a company that does IPM, even if it’s a consultant. Get somebody in there that knows what they’re doing.”
That is especially true in a warehouse being converted for indoor cultivation, he says, which may have been attractive to spiders and rodents, but never before would have been interesting to plant-based insects and pests.
For current grows looking to change approaches, the process gets a little more complicated.
“The first step is to find out what kind of chemistries they’ve been using and how often they’ve been spraying,” he says, noting that when some growers treat for powdery mildew, they expect the chemicals to take effect quicker than they do and will often spray again, feeding into a humidity problem that makes the mildew worse.
Statzer says he likes to start with an “education piece” that looks at what needs to be done and gently suggests “better greenhouse practices that can help.” He emphasizes “gently.”
“If you straight-up call their baby ugly, people get offended,” he says. “The way you have to do it is let them know there are better greenhouse practices and here’s how we can help you.”
He also says that while difficult, especially when things are going well, it’s important for growers to stick to the recommended procedures so pests never have the chance to get out of hand.
“The pest problem we can wipe out with beneficials and if they follow the program to a ‘T’ we can guarantee they won’t have a problem,” he says. “If they veer off the program, that’s when they are going to have a problem.”
— Brian Beckley
That’s really how we figured out when do you stop, when do you start. And then for something like powdery mildew we have the experience of introducing air purification machines to make sure we are being proactive and killing anything in the air, powdery mildew or downy mildew, because once it’s in the plant it’s much harder to control. So we control it before it ever gets in.
MV: What else do people need to know about IPM programs?
TS: What I would really tell people is especially if you are starting a grow — or if it’s gotten way out of hand — get help. Don’t try to do it yourself. Don’t learn things the hard way.
In this day and age we have people out there that have that knowledge that can reduce that learning curve and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: being efficient, being effective and producing the safest quality product you can. In the cannabis industry, you can save literally millions of dollars if you have a large grow, 200,000 square feet. Even with 30,000 square feet, you can save a couple hundred grand in a plant cycle.
So don’t try to do IPM by yourself. If you’re out there as a commercial grower and you are trying to do IPM by yourself, it is just really hard unless you have extensive experience. And ask the consultant, “How many projects have you done?” Do they have practical experience or are they just reading out of a book?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.