Mike Hunter is a regional field crop specialist and fire chief whose desk has a monitor that’s not hooked up to a computer. He’s always out working with local farms instead, working to manage invasive weeds or pests, offering technical assistance or educational opportunities.
Mr. Hunter, a specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, serves on a team of other specialists in the region. He covers six counties, from Jefferson to Clinton, but most of his work is done in Lewis or Jefferson. NNY Business spoke with Mr. Hunter in his Jefferson County office about research trials he’s doing to prevent invasive wildlife, murder hornets, marijuana, organic farms, non-GMOs and the workforce on farms as it stands now.
NNYB: How often are you in this office?
HUNTER: Usually once a week to check my mail.
NNYB: What do your research trials work to accomplish?
HUNTER: The bigger ones that I’ve been focusing on in the last few years involve challenging weeds coming into the area. We just have a lot of challenges ahead of us, so we try to use a lot of different ways to manage these weeds. One of them is a chemical option. We put treatments all side-by-side in a field and then we look at them and rate them to see what percent control we get if we’re talking one particular weed. The biggest challenge that we’re faced with is resistance. With farm fields, we have one particular weed that is tolerant or resistant to Roundup. We use a lot of Roundup to control these weeds. Every sign post on Interstate 81 from Oswego County to Watertown have a weed that’s in these farmers’ field.
NNYB: So that’s where some of these trials come in?
HUNTER: Yeah, that’s just one example. There’s a need for it regionally in the north country and statewide. We’re always looking for incoming threats and pests too from other areas.
NNYB: Do you encounter Murder Hornets?
HUNTER: Yeah, we get reports of those all the time. Most times they are European Hornets. I had my father-in-law bring one to the house last week, a European Hornet. He called me and said I think I have a Murder Hornet. He didn’t, it was just a European Hornet.
NNYB: What are some of the more invasive bugs in this area?
HUNTER: I think every crop has its own invasive bug. Alfalfa has two major pests. If it was corn, it would be corn rootworm.
NNYB: What are some things you’ve developed to be able to fight these?
HUNTER: The coolest one is the alfalfa snout beetle. That’s a cool pest. It’s only found in the north country. It’s a pest of the northern six counties. It doesn’t fly. It’s been here since it was documented in the 1800s. It was identified as a true pest to alfalfa in the 1930s. It spends most of its time underground and it’s the most destructive pest on alfalfa in Northern New York. So, what’s been developed is really cool. Our leading researcher in Cornell found that you can use this bio control method of using nematodes. A nematode would be like if you had a dog; the heartworms would be a nematode. The ones we found are microscopic roundworms. They live in the soil. There are good nematodes and bad nematodes in the soil. They have identified a few good nematodes, and we have them to treat roughly 30,000 acres with these. What we do is take these nematodes and apply them to the farmer’s field and then they persist. They stay in the soil for a long time. The nematodes will infect the snout beetle larva and kill them. And then we found they will control even more pests. Now we’ve taken this work and it’s now in Ontario, they’re using it down in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas. All over the country they are using these New York native nematodes. They don’t have snout beetles down there but they are used for wireworm and corn rootworm. That will be really huge, and all the work started up here in the north country.
NNYB: How are you assisting farms?
HUNTER: We’re an extension of Cornell University. We come out and provide technical assistance or educational opportunities with farms. We have farm management people, dairy people and we have field crops. Those are our three primary areas that we work with here in the north country. The dairy farms are the biggest sector of agriculture here and with that, we have a lot of field crops, so I focus a lot of my time there. We have a lot of diversity in it because we grow a lot of forage for our animals. We deal with a lot of grass, alfalfa and pastures. And our corn isn’t just corn for grain but corn for silage, too.
NNYB: What is silage?
HUNTER: That’s where they go through and chop the whole plant when it’s green. It has high moisture content. It’s harvested at around 65 percent to 68 percent moisture content, and they put it in storage structures. They pack it and cover it with plastic most of the time, and then it ferments it to preserve it. It’s a big component of a cow’s diet. And then there is hay crop silage or alfalfa silage.
NNYB: You’re also the Plessis Fire Chief. What are the benefits and maybe detriments to grass fires in a crop field?
HUNTER: Usually when we have grass fires, they take place early enough they wouldn’t lose the crop. It’s so early in the season that you’re usually just burning off some of the dead material that’s in there.
NNYB: Peppered throughout all these counties are Amish farms. What happens when you see an invasive weed or pest get into an Amish farm?
HUNTER: I’ve got an herbicide trial at an Amish farm in St. Lawrence County. We have a seed treatment, or bird repellent, so if crows go through to eat on fields, they don’t like the taste of it. So, we planted it and did a trial on a farm. The Amish will do trials with that.
NNYB: So they’re cooperative?
HUNTER: Oh yeah, they’re open to it. Their production practices look a little different just the way they plant and harvest. The misconception is, a lot of people think Amish farms are organic and many are not. They’re not adverse to using the same production practices as any other conventional farms. They’ll use insecticides, herbicides. A lot of it’s just they just use steel wheels and horses for their equipment. They’ll use commercial fertilizers. And some will follow organic practices.
NNYB: What does it mean to be organic?
HUNTER: That’s another thing. I have to be careful when I talk about it. There is a lot of misinformation that’s out there from the consumer side of it. If you went to Hannaford Supermarket or Price Chopper and sat outside the stores and asked people why they bought organic — this is where my bias comes in. I have no problem with organic farms. It doesn’t matter to me. But if you were to ask them, probably the number one answer you’d get is they bought it because there aren’t any pesticides used in organic farming. That’s not correct. There are pesticides used in organic farming. There is a list of approved organic pesticides that can be used on organic farms. They use different pesticides. Sometimes people think organic means we plant a seed in the ground and don’t put any fertilizer on it or crop protection products on it. That’s not always the case. There’s an approved list.
NNYB: What’s the basic tenet of being organic?
HUNTER: There are a lot of certification standards. It goes beyond how you treat it. You have to do crop rotation. You can’t grow corn in the same field every year. And the products themselves are from an approved list. If you differentiate between conventional and organic farms, conventional farms can use commercial fertilizer. Organic seeds cost a lot more than conventional seeds. It’s a higher cost of production, but at the end you do it because you’re going to get a higher price for your product.
NNYB: Is organic farming more labor intensive?
HUNTER: It can be. We have some large dairy farms that are organic. The big issue is weed control is tough. We don’t have a lot of really good organic herbicides.
NNYB: Why do you have more weeds with an organic farm?
HUNTER: In conventional farming, we do everything we can to manage the weeds through crop rotation, tillage practices and soil health. If I have weeds in there, I have a huge list of herbicide choices to control the weeds. Organic farms don’t have that. They have to use mechanical practices and cultivation practices.
NNYB: What is your opinion on non-GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). I talk to a lot of farmers who think there are a lot of misconceptions around the marketing side of it.
HUNTER: The challenge we have with non-GMO is we have a lot of products you can pick up today that are going to be marketed as GMO free. Many of the products that are GMO free, that it’s not grown from plants that had genetic modifications to it, the challenge is that a lot of those don’t exist for anybody. You can’t buy a genetically modified tomato in the United States.
NNYB: It says non-GMO on some products that are all non-GMO?
HUNTER: Yes. Popcorn is an example. You see GMO free popcorn on the shelf. That’s fine. All the other popcorn that doesn’t say GMO free is GMO free, so it’s a marketing thing.
NNYB: Do you have an opinion on GMOs in general?
HUNTER: I’m on the science side of it. It goes through enough regulations. They don’t just come up with these things and market them without testing them. It goes through rigorous testing processes before they are allowed. These decisions aren’t made by the chemical or the seed companies. It’s the science world that is doing that -- the USDA and the FDA. I don’t have a problem eating GMOs. I think the safety in our food system is phenomenal.
NNYB: Speaking of plants, have you considered or actively started to learn how to deal with marijuana crops?
HUNTER: I can touch that just briefly. I can advise anybody who is growing industrial hemp. I’ve worked with people growing it for years, but on the marijuana side of it, because of our funding being from the federal government, I can’t do it.
NNYB: How close is hemp to a marijuana plant?
HUNTER: In the field you can’t tell the difference. It’s the THC level that’s the difference.
NNYB: So, the hemp grower could tell the marijuana grower what you told them?
HUNTER: The marijuana growers don’t really want the industrial hemp growers out there. If I grow industrial hemp, in order to sell my crop, I have to have an extremely low THC level in there. If it gets on the high side, I can’t sell it. The backyard marijuana people didn’t want industrial hemp. They didn’t tell you that. What happens is, if I planted a big field of industrial hemp and it’s low THC and my neighbor planted some marijuana for his own use — if they pollinated at the same time and my hemp pollen got on his marijuana, it would wreck his THC level.
NNYB: Is there anything that farmers can look forward to that they didn’t have last year?
HUNTER: The one thing I hear on farms is they are having a hard time finding labor. This unemployment issue has been a challenge — I mean, that applies to any business. You can’t get people back to work because they have a calculator and they know how to use it.