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Eco-Fruit apples thrive while getting fewer doses of pesticide.

When Bob Barthel was growing up on his family’s fruit farm, his father had two pest control tools: a sprayer and a calendar that told him when to use it.

There’s still a sprayer in Barthel’s shed, but the calendar is history. Instead, Barthel and his wife, Nino Ridgway MS’83 PhD’86, rely on traps for catching insects, magnifiers for identifying them, on-farm weather stations that transmit data to the farm’s computers and software that helps them make sense of it all.

“We use daily temperatures, leaf wetness readings, humidity and wind speed to model insect development and fungal infection periods,” explains Barthel, a grower in UW-Madison’s Eco-Fruit Project, which promotes reduced pesticide use on fruit farms. “Where Dad had to spray once a week, we know when the moth is flying, when the eggs are laid and when (they are) going to hatch. So we can time it exactly to put a material down if needed to stop the wormy apple.”

The complex system, known as integrated pest management, has helped the couple cut pesticide use by 40 to 70 percent since they took over the operation. It’s also a big reason why the Barthel Fruit Farm became the first orchard in Wisconsin to qualify for “green payments” from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Security Program, a five-year-old federal scheme that rewards farmers for actions that protect the land, air and water quality, and wildlife.

Growers such as the Barthels are a big reason behind the success of the Eco-Fruit Project, a partnership between the university and the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association that uses grower-to-grower networks to encourage greater use of integrated pest management. Barthel and Ridgway have been leaders in using integrated pest management for apples and helping educate other growers, says Michelle Miller BS’83 MS’93 of UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which manages the project.

But the Barthels have their own reasons for embracing IPM. Aside from the environmental benefits and the cost savings, the approach makes life on the farm safer and more pleasant.

“Pesticide spraying is the worst job on the farm,” says Barthel. “Why do it if you don’t have to?”