After relocating from Florida to start an organic farm in Maine last year, Elizabeth Jimenez is on a mission to rid her land of ticks.
Part of her tick management plan is going scorched earth.
Jimenez, along with Guy Johnson and Adrian Sotropa, are turning three acres of the farm in Friendship into organic gardens and orchards. They and a team of volunteers are also starting the Karuna Healing Center on the property.
Jimenez said they knew there were ticks in Maine, but until this spring they had no idea how bad they really were.
“I had heard from someone first hand who had gotten Lyme Disease, and another friend had told me about ticks in Maine, so I was aware of them,” Jimenez said. “But when we moved to our farm we started seeing a lot of them and they are so aggressive and it’s just crazy.”
After researching various ways to rid the intended planting area of ticks without using chemicals, Jimenez said they decided to conduct a series of controlled burns on it using propane torches.
Jimenez and the other farmers have started keeping a glass jar into which they deposit the ticks they pull off themselves during the day. She said the jar is filling fast.
“The situation is really so bad with the ticks. If you want to sit down, don’t, because you will get covered — you need to squat,” she said. “We need to take action.”
As bad as the situation may look now on the farm in Friendship, it’s not shaping up to be as bad as it was last year, according to one of the state’s top tick experts.
“In 2021 we had an absolute explosion of dog tick numbers and activity,” said Griffin Dill, manager of the tick lab at The University of Maine. “At this time last year we had already gotten 300 reports and we generally get 500 to 600 over an entire year.”
Dill said this year’s numbers are more reflective of a normal tick year.
“The explosion in numbers people are seeing now is because we are getting into the time of year where multiple tick species are active,” Dill said. “Early on it was the deer ticks and now we are seeing dog ticks, so you have this combination of both.”
Jimenez is ready for them.
The farmers have the torches ready to go and this week they will talk to officials at the local fire department about how to safely and effectively conduct the burns.
Once the scorching is complete, Jimenez said the plan is to create a wide buffer of wood chips to discourage ticks from moving back in.
Dill said there has been research showing burning areas of known tick concentrations can help reduce the population. To a point.
“It’s primarily been tried in woodland settings where the underbrush is burned,” Dill said. “It does seem to have a pretty good effect in the short term.”
The problem is, once the vegetation starts regenerating, it creates the perfect tick habitat.
“If you are not keeping up with it with some sort of tick management, as the regrowth begins you create good habitat for deer and small mammals,” Dill said. “So what you are doing is regenerating things for a nice, new tick habitat.”
Using a buffer strip of wood chips works less as a tick deterrent and more as a visual cue for humans, according to Dill. That’s because ticks don’t travel far on their own.
“Ticks tend to stay in one place hoping something passes by they can latch onto,” Dill said. “Those kind of bark perimeters tell us we are transitioning from a low-risk area to a habitat with tall grass that may be a bit more risky for ticks.”
Jimenez does not plan on backing down from dealing with ticks when winter hits next year. She said the plan is to keep the field plowed and free of snow in the hope that the lack of insulation provided by the snow will freeze the ticks.
It’s a strategy that makes some sense, Dill said, especially in killing off dog ticks that tend to be found in fields. But it may have little to no effect on deer ticks that spend their time in more woodland settings.
Dill did say Jimenez has the right idea using more than one method to get rid of ticks.
“We don’t have a single, silver bullet yet to get rid of ticks,” Dill said. “Using that multi-pronged approach is a good way to go.”