GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Sometimes the answers to life's peskiest problems lie right underneath your nose, or should we say, snout.
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RAZ: This week on Science Out of the Box, a Michigan apple grower goes hog-wild in this battle against bugs. The main culprit, a small beetle with a big name: the plum curculio.
Lady curculios lay their eggs inside apples, supplying a feast for their young. Without pesticides to fight them, organic growers have had a particularly tough time with these beetles. But here's the story of one farmer who enlisted an unusual ally. From member station WCMU, Amy Robinson reports.
AMY ROBINSON: Jim Koan scratches his beard and ambles out to the barn. Inside a modified stall is a huge pig.
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ROBINSON: She's one of three breeding sows, 300 pounds of motherly love. The sows are named after Jim's wife and her two sisters. Koan admits, not one of his better ideas. Meet Karen and her ten little curly-tailed bundles of joy.
Mr. JIM KOAN (Apple Grower): This is our third litter right here since we started a year ago.
ROBINSON: Mom grunts and pig though she is, watches us like a hawk.
(Soundbite of pigs grunting and squealing)
ROBINSON: These piglets are important to the future of Elmar Orchard, which is Koan's farm. He uses pigs instead of pesticides on his 120 acre organic apple orchard. He's found through the years that some pests are really tough to fight organically. They spend part of their life cycle in ground fall apples. That's where the pigs come in.
If they eat the apples at just the right time, the life cycle of the pest is interrupted. At least that's the theory.
Mr. DAVID EPSTEIN (Pest Management Specialist, Researcher, Michigan State University): Jim and I have worked together for about a dozen years now and I'm used to his harebrained ideas.
ROBINSON: Dave Epstein is a pest management specialist from Michigan State University, a researcher and a frequent visitor to Jim's farm.
Mr. EPSTEIN: He's one of these guys, we call him a novel thinker.
ROBINSON: He's helping Koan investigate empirically what generations of farmers have believed instinctively: that pigs can be an effective weapon against orchard pests.
Koan's own grandfather used to run pigs in this apple orchard. That was then; this is now. Epstein says he can't find anything in the scientific literature about using pigs for pest control, so funded by a USDA grant, he's conducting the research. He'll travel to France this fall to present his findings to the International Conference on Integrated Fruit Practices.
Epstein says one big concern with running pigs in an apple orchard is the possibility of microbial contamination - things like e. coli. But he says so far his researchers haven't found any organisms of concern. He says last year's running of the pigs was a learning experience and a success.
Mr. EPSTEIN: We ran the hogs in. Within three days in, they had picked up 98 percent of the apples.
Mr. KOAN: You couldn't hire people to do a good a job as they did.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah. And then the little guys didn't do any damage to the orchard. The big guys did. We went into this thinking we were going to want the big pigs 'cause they're the ones that were going to eat the most and clean up. But there were big fat hogs who laid in the orchard and dug down to the tree root and caused a lot of problems.
The little guys are the ones that moved through and did a really good job of cleaning up.
ROBINSON: The pigs are fed apples year-round. Eventually they'll graduate from pest control specialists to, well, dinner. Koan is marketing organic apple-fed pork. It fits with his goal of complete sustainability; something called integrated farming. Researcher Dave Epstein says the potential for revamping an entire segment of the agriculture industry is a big issue to put on the backs of some apple-loving pigs.
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Mr. EPSTEIN: Very true, but they can take it. They're pigs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBINSON: For NPR News, I'm Amy Robinson.