Controlling Pests and Diseases: Understanding Growers’ Preferences and Choices on Organic Production of Cucurbit Crops

Nieyan Cheng, Wendong Zhang, Mark L. Gleason
May 2023  [23-PB 38]

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Suggested citation:

Cheng, N., W. Zhang, and M. Gleason. 2023. "Controlling Pests and Diseases: Understanding Growers’ Preferences and Choices on Organic Production of Cucurbit Crops." Policy brief 23-PB 38. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University.

Executive Summary

Consumer demand for fresh, locally grown organic produce, including cucurbits, is rising. However, organic cucurbit growers in the United States struggle to capitalize on this opportunity because of severe damage caused by pests and diseases, which collectively cost growers more than $100 million per year. Thus, a new technology, mesotunnels,^1 was introduced. Mesotunnels are medium-size tunnels–taller than low tunnels and shorter than high tunnels—made by conduits and a breathable nylon-mesh fabric to create a protective barrier between crops and the environment to guard against weather extremes (e.g., heavy rain, hail, high wind) and pest complexes (pest insects and pathogens they transmit), while increasing profitability.^2 Thus, mesotunnels provide a potential solution for managing major pests and pathogens of cucurbits and are highly amenable to integrating biologicals for further pathogen control.

A key step in evaluating the commercial viability of mesotunnels is to learn about growers’ experiences and viewpoints on using row cover strategies, their willingness to adopt new approaches, and their primary ways of obtaining information about these technologies. Thus, we designed a survey targeting growers of organic cucurbit crops.

We received 337 completed surveys out of 1,057 eligible samples (a response rate of 33.7%) from January 27, 2022, to March 30, 2022 from Iowa, Kentucky, New York and the surrounding states of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Michigan. Of respondents, 90% either farmed in the past five years or will farm in the next five years. Respondents averaged 18 years of farming experience with only one respondent reporting no farming experience. Focusing on cucurbit crops, the average farmer had 13 years’ experience. The average respondent farmed 100 acres for all crops; however, with small variations, only seven acres per farm, on average, were for cucurbits. The farming acres for specific varieties ranged from 0.007 (honeydew) to 4.3 (winter squash). Over 90% of respondents were in certified organic status, except growers of gourd and pumpkin.

In 2021, growers hired more paid than non-paid farmworkers. To sell their crops, nearly half of respondents marketed their products via either local farmers’ markets, wholesaling, on-farm retail stands, direct sales to grocery stores, large retailers, supermarkets, grower cooperatives, or community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises. In addition to cucurbit crops, respondents also sold a wide range of other crops (e.g., chives, garlic, leeks, etc.).

As for pest and disease management in cucurbit crop production, most respondents selected insect pressure, crop disease, weed pressure, heavy rain events, and input costs as the most concerning general threats to cucurbit crop production. Over 50% of respondents selected bacterial wilt, cucumber beetles, downy mildew, powdery mildew, and squash bugs as specific threats. To achieve their goals, producers choose different production management strategies. Sixty percent of growers considered improving yields, profitability, produce quality, soil quality, and whether pest controls are effective as top concerns. For spraying strategies, most growers (59%) used a hand-pump backpack sprayer. Half of respondents sprayed pesticides no more than three times per growing season. When asked about row covers, more than 62% of respondents said they chose to use permeable row covers for any of their cucurbit crops and 50% applied row covers to less than half of their cucurbit acres. The top two reasons for applying row covers were to control insects and pests and protect against cold temperatures. Most respondents felt that row covers can improve yields (76%) and product quality (73%) and reduce insecticide spray frequency (66%) and vulnerability to weather (78%). The majority showed interest in continuing use of row covers.

Furthermore, while over 50% of respondents used low tunnels and high tunnels, only 14% previously used mesotunnels. More than 30% perceived mesotunnels as easy to learn, adapt and apply in their current production systems. When referring to their likelihood to adopt mesotunnels in the next five years, 40% reported they were either highly or somewhat likely to adopt while another 40% are not that likely to adopt. For those who are willing to adopt mesotunnels, 70% want to use it within next three years. Cucumber, summer squash, and watermelon are the top three varieties for which respondents are willing to use mesotunnels. Lastly, the majority of respondents perceived mesotunnels as effective on all the outcomes including maximizing marketable yield, reducing pesticide use, and controlling insect pests.

^1. Details about mesotunnels can be found at
^2. However, mesotunnels are not a strategy to enhance earliness (they do not hold in much heat due to the mesh-type fabric covering).