DAVIS, Calif. – Mark Van Horn, director of the student farm at the University of California, is nearly lost as he walks through a yellow cloud of wild sunflowers around the edge of a field of tomatoes and sweet corn.

They aren’t here for their beauty or as a cash crop – they are a key pest control strategy down on the organic farm.

Research here on wild sunflowers, he says, shows they are home to lady beetles and parasitic wasps, which are good bugs that kill bad bugs.

“The sunflowers help us provide a bed-and-breakfast for beneficial insects and keep them going year round,” he said. “And native sunflowers are a lot better at it than domestic. There’s a lot more insect biodiversity in wild sunflowers.”

While conventional farmers have a quiver full of chemical arrows to battle the invasion of weeds and pests, the organic farmer has a tougher row to hoe. There simply aren’t organic bug sprays that can match the power of synthetic chemicals and almost nothing in the way of organic herbicides.

Instead, there’s a growing understanding among organic farmers of ways to harness natural systems as part of what is called integrated pest management.