We heard about Sonja Birthisel when we saw her name on the list of teachers for an upcoming class at MOFGA on ways to integrate beneficial insects for natural pest control. The daylong class this Thursday, sponsored by the Xerces Society, is intended to give farmers (or gardeners) a science-based strategy to avoid insecticides. Birthisel will be talking about the role predatory ground beetles can play in keeping down weeds. We spend enough time thinking beetles are bad to be intrigued, so we called the University of Maine graduate student to talk about good weeds, how she got started down the agricultural path and what exactly a beetle bank is.

AT YOUR SERVICE: Birthisel will be talking about beetles that provide services to farmers who want to avoid pesticides. Like say, ladybugs, which take on aphids? Ladybugs are great, Birthisel says, but “I’d say they are just the poster child for a much wider array of very cool organisms that naturally work in our soil.” The kind she’ll be focusing on in her talk are Carabid beetles, which she describes as “the dominant insect seed predator.” They aren’t commercially available. There are many varieties, but typically in Maine, the ones you’ll be seeing are black with red legs and maybe an inch long, Birthisel said. Why are they so good? “They like to eat seeds that are present right on the surface,” i.e., seeds that drop right off weeds. But they won’t go burrowing for the seeds you plant, Birthisel said.

THROWING SPAGHETTI: How did she get into agricultural science? Birthisel was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Maine from the age of 7. Her family lived in Cumberland, where Birthisel’s grandfather had been a dairy farmer. “That was back when Cumberland was not the swanky town that it is today. It has built up an awful lot in my lifetime.” She went to Luther College in northeastern Iowa. How did she end up so far away? “Financial aid.” She’d been homeschooled all the way through her high school years. “I knew that this would be something that colleges would raise their eyebrows to.” So she applied to a wide group of schools, “kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall,” and she chose the one that gave her the best financial aid. At Luther, which she loved, she studied biology and ecology. Doing so in Big Agriculture country was formative; she saw firsthand the impact monocultures have on the land. “It really made me want to be involved in sustainable agriculture.”

FAKE MOM, REAL TEACHER: After a year of working at the Illinois Math and Science Academy as a resident counselor – “fake mom” to a bunch of smart kids – Birthisel came back to Maine and got a master’s degree from the University of Maine in ecology and environmental sciences. “My master’s research was all about beneficial beetles and other creatures that eat the seeds of agricultural weeds.” Next, a year with AmeriCorps’ FoodCorps program, working with rural kids in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. What did she learn while teaching? “That kids love to learn how to cook. And that they need to be taught how to use knives properly!” (As a homeschooled kid, those domestic skills were something she took for granted.) There were no knife accidents, by the way.

NUDGE NUDGE: As her FoodCorps work wound down, the concept of going back to UMaine for a doctorate in ecology and environmental sciences began to seem appealing. “The continuing progress of my education has been finishing a milestone and then saying, ‘OK, that is it, I am done,’ and then someone nudging me back into education.” She went back in early 2015 and is deep into her program. She’s also teaching undergraduates, leading a cornerstone introductory class for students in the sustainable agriculture and horticulture programs at the university. Birthisel enjoys this work, a lot. “I would love a career that is focused on education.”

WEED WHACKER: Not that research isn’t fun. About 18 months ago, Birthisel received a grant from the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions on a research project to help farmers combat weeds without pesticides, through methods like mulching or tilling or crop rotations within a season. “I was making a digital tool to help farmers learn about and engage with weeds.” It’s called WEEDucator. “The idea is to allow them to do some trial and error virtually.” In her talks with farmers, they told her that they learn the most by trying techniques themselves. “That’s a great way to learn but also potentially expensive, if you are making mistakes on your farm field, and also time-consuming.” WEEDucator is still evolving. “Right now it is a glimmer of what I think it can be in the future.”

DON’T MISS: Other parts of this Thursday’s workshop address the usefulness of pollinators (taught by a former Meet, Eric Venturini) and the importance of beetle banks, which she explains are deliberate plantings specifically intended to attract beetles. Birthisel is down with the whole agenda. “I am like, that sounds awesome, but of course, I am a huge nerd.”

GOOD WEED: Tell us something good about weeds. “Lamb’s quarters is sometimes underappreciated. Some people don’t know that it is edible, but it is really quite tasty. A little bit like spinach. I like to use it in lasagna.” Where does she stand on plantain (the weed, not the cooking banana)? “I am pro-plantain. I would never bother pulling them out of my lawn.” We confess that we do just that and dislike them very much. She laughed. “It goes back to that question, ‘What is a weed?’ It is any plant that is not where you want it to be.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols