A Commercial Grower’s Take on Worry-Free Pest Control

By Cory Hughes

A Commercial Grower’s Take on Worry-Free Pest Control

If you keep up with cannabis news across the country, you probably know that commercial grows from Denver to Seattle have been busted using pesticides that the states have deemed unsafe. Being licensed by the state of Colorado as a commercial pesticide applicator and having worked personally with the Department of Agriculture, I can say that their regulations might not always be consistent or backed up by science. Still, the vast majority of the rules put in place are meant to protect us, and they do. As the industry developed, the pesticides that were being used were scrutinized, and a list of acceptable products was released. While the cannabis industry is being forced to turn to safe organic pesticides, making the switch at home is something every grower should consider.

Pesticides have a bad rap and for good reason. Products like glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, are decimating bee populations, destroying delicate ecosystems and causing a slew of human health problems from ADHD to Parkinson's Disease. Even as one of the few licensed commercial applicators in the cannabis industry, I would cringe when I told people what I did for a living.

As home growers are not constrained by the same regulations as commercial grows, many don't have a problem using commercially banned products like Eagle 20 and Avid. Eagle 20 and Avid work and they work well.  It doesn't matter if your problem was mildew or pests, these one-size-fits-all solutions are turned to for their efficiency and ease of use. Your grand kids might not feel the same when they are born with three eyes, but many growers really have a hard time looking past their beautiful crop and exploring the dangers of these types of pesticides.

Eagle 20 is made of a substance called myclobutanil. It is sold as a fungicide, regulated as a pesticide and will kill everything in your garden. Yes, it is any easy and cheap way to rid your grow of pests and mold, but at what cost? Workers exposed to myclobutanil suffer immediate effects of vomiting and nausea, abdominal cramps, headaches and nosebleeds. The long term and generational effects are not yet known. Studies on mice showed decreased birth weights and slow development in newborns as well as shifts in behavioral patterns and shrinking of genitalia in adults. Do you really want to smoke that? Yes, people will say that it can be used in vegetative plants which will result in undetectable levels at harvest but really, why take chances with your health when there are better ways.

Eagle 20 isn't the only culprit out there. There's Avid (abamectin), Mallet (imidacloprid), TetraSan 5 (etoxazole) and many, many more still on retail shelves that have been shown to have similar health concerns. If you are looking to eliminate pests and mildew from your cannabis, what you are really talking about or, should be, is implementing an IPM or Integrated Pest Management program. Integrated means part of your routine, and management means something you need to supervise. It's not called integrated pest eradication for a reason. Turning to safer organic pesticides as part of an IPM program is the first step every home grower should take if they care about their health and the health of their plants and families. Growers know there are no magic beans. There are no safe one-stop fixes for pest control either.  

Understanding how pesticides work is the first step you should take in implementing an organic IPM program. Pesticides can be broken into several categories. Insecticides affect insects, fungicides affect fungi, herbicides affect weeds, etc. You'll most likely look to kill spider mites, russet mites and powdery mildew. These are the three biggest pests you'll find in most grows. That being said, you'll need an arachnicide, a miticide and a fungicide. The mechanism in which insecticides work varies. Some cause disruption to the nervous system, some are suffocants, which block the insects’ ability to breathe, and some are designed to interrupt the pest’s life cycle. Turning to problem-specific solutions is safer not only for you but for your grow. Products like Eagle 20 kill everything, including fungi that your plant depends on to convert nutrition in soil. Isolating problems with specific solutions avoids unintended consequences.

With pesticides, less is typically more. If you don't have powdery mildew, then don't spray for it. Knowing what to spray at what phase of your cycle is key to maintaining a healthy grow. The best place to start with an IPM program is at the beginning with your clones. I'm going to skip seed pre-treatment, as I really don't know anyone home growing with seeds right now. I will say that from my experience, the vast majority of contaminated grows come from commercially purchased clones. If you buy clones, I would hit them with a preventative treatment just in case. Now onto the big question, what do you hit them with?

Treating clones is one of my favorite IPM activities. Clones can be fragile and break under the pressure of a sprayer and sometimes even under the weight of the applied pesticide alone. Turning to biological controls are a great, natural and kind of fun way to eliminate mite activity. Biological controls refer in this case to the release of predator mites directly onto your clones, who consume other pests. You can buy an over-the-counter jar of Phytoseiulus persimilis, i.e., predator mites that will consume spider mites and their eggs. Once they've gorged themselves on your pests, they die. Turning to natural, cycle-of-life type products instead of toxic chemicals is always the right way to go. The results from my experience have always been phenomenal, eliminating the need to use chemicals at all.

I'm not going to go too deep into the differences between restricted use pesticides and what are called 25B products, but know that 25B products have no restrictions on use. Restrictions refer to how often you can use them, the quantities you can use, the REI or restricted entry interval (the amount time needed before you can re-enter an exposed area) and the preharvest interval (the amount of time between your last application and harvest). Most organic pesticides are still restricted use, even though they are not toxic. The vast majority of organic pesticides barely result in skin irritation if directly exposed, however it’s never good to inhale or ingest any concentrated chemicals, organic or not.

Once you begin your program, you should know that pests, over time, build tolerances and resistances to pesticides. You'll want to rotate the products you use, changing mechanisms of eradication each spray to stay one step ahead. Some of the more common organic pesticides used are neem oil, mineral oil, azadirachtin and Bacillus A., and there are a variety of insecticidal soaps. All of these products are extremely effective and safe. Neem oil is a vegetable oil extract that works by disrupting hormone receptors that causes the pest to stop eating, mating and laying eggs. Mineral oil clogs the breathing holes spread over the insect's body. Bacillus A. is an organic pathogen that comes as a wettable powder. When diluted and sprayed on your plants, it is an extremely effective solution for powdery mildew that kills spores on contact and prevents new spores from forming. Organic solutions to pest problems in your grow are not complicated or out of reach, and they provide a much healthier environment for plants and humans to thrive.

Organic pesticide application, as with everything else in an IPM program, is an ongoing part of the job. You can get the application information off the product label. Labels are not just an ingredient list. With pesticides, they are a legally binding document and illegal to violate. Most organic pesticides have an application timetable of seven to 11 days. However, to keep a regimented schedule, doing an application once a week not only meets the label requirements but will be easier for you to track. A big part of your schedule is alternating your products weekly so as to avoid resistances. If you use mineral oil this week, use neem oil next week. Constant rotation will ensure the results you are looking for.

I understand the temptation to turn to quick fixes in your grow. Products like Eagle 20 and Avid work—there is no denying that—but in the information age we live in, enough data exists on these types of products to make every grower stop and think: Are the potential consequences of using these toxic chemicals worth it especially when there are safer yet effective products out there? At the end of the day, cannabis is about health and well-being. Turning to organic pesticide alternatives is the way to make sure it stays that way.

Image by Katatonia82/Shutterstock.

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