Many modern farms—where “clean” fields and monocultures rule—lack key elements of a functional ecosystem: a broad diversity of insects, wildlife, trees, and plant species. But in the past 30 years a revolution in thinking about native plants and beneficial insects has reinforced the importance of maintaining wild areas on farms. Matthew Wheeland reports on three innovative efforts to remarry the farm to the wild in California.
An uneasy truce
On wet winter mornings in the Sacramento Valley, the wide, empty fields of farm country lie dormant and dismal-looking, the horizons stretch for miles, and the sky clenches the earth like a vast concrete vise. But on the Cosumnes River Preserve, just outside Elk Grove, migrating sandhill cranes, river otters, ducks, rabbits, geese, and countless local bird species are only the most visible of the animals that thrive there. The 46,000-acre preserve began more than 20 years ago as a collaboration among the Nature Conservancy, the federal Bureau of Land Management, Ducks Unlimited, the California Department of Fish and Game, and other groups—that in the past often worked at cross-purposes. The centerpiece of the preserve’s agriculture operations is Staten Island Ranch, a 9,200-acre corn and wheat farm about four miles from the visitors’ center, as the crane flies. The Nature Conservancy purchased the farm, which has been in operation since the 1860s, in 2001.
During the winter, the ranch’s flooded fields providing roosting grounds for thousands of migrating sandhill cranes. The cranes desperately need all the turf they can find. Elk Grove is one of the fastest- growing municipalities in the country. And many landowners plant grapevines, whose tight rows are too narrow for the bird’s seven-foot wingspan. Even Staten remains a far cry from an ideal environmentally friendly farm. Because the farm is a feast for corn and wheat pests, and because weeds thrive in its marshy soil, the Conservancy must deploy an array of pesticides and herbicides to protect Staten’s crops.
Still, the ranch represents an uneasy truce between conservation and agriculture that is growing in popularity. “Enviros are beginning to realize that we need to look at our farms as natural habitat, and farmers are starting to recognize that without pollinators we won’t have productive agriculture,” says Frederick Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow of the Aldo Leopold Center at Iowa State University. “We’re just at the very beginning of renegotiating our whole attitude toward agriculture.”
The best perk from hedgerows? “Mo re pheasants!” John Anderson exclaims. Anderson, who started Hedgerow Farms in 1978, loves hunting pheasants, as well as ducks, geese, deer, rabbits, and many of the other species that thrive on his 500-acre farm in Winters, 20 miles northwest of Davis. Though the term hedgerow conjures images of manicured bushes on suburban lawns—a goodfences, good-neighbors kind of planting—rural and agricultural hedgerows are often several stories tall, dense, and complex growths of grasses, shrubs, and trees. And farmers such as Anderson have discovered that hedgerows can provide a simple and promising tool to bring wildlife back to their lands, and to fit farms back into nature.
“It’s not just aesthetic virtues you get from hedges,” says Sam Earnshaw of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “They prevent erosion, serve as windbreaks and block pesticide drift, encourage beneficial insects, improve the soil, and filter and recharge groundwater.”
Anderson’s hedgerows are designed to reduce insect pests and weeds in his fields. He uses tall trees to act as windbreaks, and he plants flowering shrubs and plants to attract predatory and parasitic insects that keep most destructive bugs in check. He insists on native plants, to draw bees and other wild pollinators to the fields, which can increase fruit and nut crop yields. Native grasses need maintenance for three years after taking root, but beyond that, the plants easily out-compete weeds for resources.
Despite the cost—as much as $6,000 to install and maintain a 1,400-foot hedgerow for three years— Anderson sees farmers becoming increasingly interested in planting hedgerows. “If I can get people out here to see what you saw today,” he says, “I could sell it so easy.”
The new buzz
Almonds need bees. Unlike self-pollinating fields of wheat or corn, almonds will not produce nuts unless bees pollinate almond flowers. With 580,000 acres of almond orchards across the state, the two hives per acre that California farmers need to ensure a good crop equals almost half of the honeybee hives in the United States. Unfortunately, a mysterious malady, known as “colony collapse disorder,” is decimating honeybees across the country. Some beekeepers have lost 70 percent of their bees, and growers are looking for an alternative to the imperiled honeybee.
A small, iridescent blue bee called Osmia lignaria, also known as the blue orchard bee, offers a promising way to alleviate the honeybee crisis. The mason bee is one of roughly 4,000 species of wild bee that inhabit North America, and the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit that works to conserve native pollinators and their habitats, is promoting the benefits of retooling farmlands to encourage wild bees.
Researchers have discovered that native pollinators not only pollinate a wider variety of crops than honeybees but also out-pollinate honeybees on some crops. Wild bees, notably the bumblebee and the ground nesting bee, have evolved their own behaviors to harvest tomato pollen, and in the process pollinate the plants. These wild bees perform what’s known as buzz pollination, vibrating their whole bodies while hanging on the tomato flower, shaking pollen from the flower’s crevice.
But in agriculture-intensive areas such as the Sacramento Valley, with field upon field covered only with crops, creating enough habitat to sustain wild bees can be difficult, costly, and time-consuming. So the Xerces Society suggests farmers begin encouraging native pollinators by turning bad farmlands—on hills that tractors can’t climb, along fences, and in field corners—into good bee lands.