How Biodiversity is Critical to a Fully Functioning Farm

Rt.1J.Baumgarnter.JPGArticle written by Jo Ann Baumgartner, Wild Farm Alliance and was printed in Planet Drum June 2016 newsletter. 

We support what is beautiful and what we love—songbirds singing out their names, fat bumblebees busy sampling an array of gorgeous native flowers, and the majestic oaks towering over us—these species can and do live on farms. Are they what make a farm beautiful?

There’s a debate raging here and especially in Europe where eco-payments are made to farmers to protect rare species. It goes like this: Should we have agricultural sacrificial zones with separate protected wild places, or should we have wildlife-friendly farms. The sacrificial zones are where the crop is grown fencerow to fencerow and every other plant is killed with herbicides or fire, and livestock are confined to small areas and are not allowed to graze. From every perspective—beauty, functionality, and biodiversity—we must have both large protected areas and wildlife-friendly matrixes.

Agriculture comprises almost 60% of the continental U.S., and 40% of the Earth’s landscape. As our population grows and our planet heats up, it is imperative that we take advantage of biodiversity and the benefits it provides—pollination, pest control, clean water, and fertile soils. These can help the farm be more resilient to changes in climate that will cause increasing drought, heat waves and flooding, and declining ecological balance of natural predators, resulting in more pests, diseases, and sterile landscapes. And just as important, the farm is addressing the worldwide biodiversity crisis.

In my mind, a beautiful farm is one where the farmer makes a living not just on the land, but from the diversity of the natural world. In doing so that farmer has a richer experience interacting with nature (as opposed to solely growing corn and soybeans over, and over, and over), and ultimately, supports wild nature.

Take a walk with me through a few diversified farms in the Central Coast of California. Let’s start at Live Earth Farm. The songbirds are now singing every morning because it is breeding season—the insectivorous ones like the chestnut-backed chickadees are eating codling moth so the proverbial worm that would have been in the apple, helps to feed their young. The oak trees that are interspersed throughout the farm (especially on steeper slopes that aren’t tilled), support up to 5,000 insect species—500 of which are caterpillars—more big food sources for nestlings. While worldwide honeybees are in decline, native bees are helping to take up the slack, especially on this farm where native habitat provides nectar and pollen, and nesting sites (hollow stems for tunnel nesting bees and open ground for ground nesting bees) are conserved. Corridors for wildlife movement exist in several places on the farm. Come summer, the apricots are to die for, the tomatoes exquisite, and the multitude of other produce, amazing. As these crops bloom, they are giving back to the pollinators and beneficial insects, supporting some of their food needs. There are trade-offs to coexistence with nature—the errant chicken that escaped its electrically fenced yard has become food for a bobcat. Regional studies suggest pest birds (the non-insect-eating kind) consume about an equal number of strawberries that the insectivorous birds save by eating the strawberry’s pest insects. Even with the trade-offs, the farm is viable and highly successful.

Strolling through Phil Foster’s Ranch, we see the crop diversity as varied as Live Earth Farm’s, but it is more in the flatlands where there are less complex wild corridors and edges. Nevertheless, a restored riparian area stabilizes the river banks and helps support wide ranging predators that keep rodents in check, and huge native plant hedgerows serve to support beneficial native bees and natural enemy insects and birds, and store woody carbon. Tradeoffs are managed with specific techniques. For example, being careful to plant the first few rows adjacent to one hedgerow with crops that aren’t attractive to pest birds, and using temporary fencing along another hedgerow when the crop is young to discourage foraging by the quail that have taken up residence there. In the end, the produce is out of this world—roast their flavorful bell peppers, caramelize their big red onions, steam their flat Italian green beans and eat their fresh cherries and you’ll not find better.

Our trail takes us to Morris Grassfed Beef’s operation where pasture-raised cattle graze on thousands of acres. Their holistically managed animals are rotated through the landscape to provide high quality forage, capture carbon in the soil, and conserve biodiversity. Wide ranging wildife such as mountain lions also use these landscapes. The cattle are treated with care which comes through in the meat—it is succulent, bite after bite, and so good for you with higher amounts of beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than beef produced using conventional cattle-feeding strategies. By never allowing the animals to overgraze, the ranchers maintain more vegetation in creeks and riparian areas. They are seeing more native than non-native grasses, and shrubs are retained to support birds like the Scrub Jay. The Scrub Jay is a restoration specialist, burying more acorns than it can find later, thereby fostering oak regeneration. If there is a trade off, it is that rotational grazing is more management intensive than just turning out the cattle and letting them graze, and graze, until they overgraze the landscape.

The last stop takes us through Deep Roots Ranch, a heritage breed operation raising cows, chickens, turkeys, and sheep. Even on smaller acreage, nature is integrated. The secret to their success is that they are grass farmers—keeping the pasture healthy means matching the number of animals to what the grass can support. They’ve restored a muddy ditch back into a clear running creek that runs through the middle of their property, supporting all kinds of songbirds and aquatic species. How many ways can you cook lamb? A fun and delicious way to find out is by purchasing an animal from them. 

Drive through other agricultural areas and you may look at very different farming practices. Row crops are seen with “clean” edges and orchards with cleared understories where they could have supported pollinators and natural enemy insects—instead, these farms pay extra for pollination (beehives) and pest control (pesticides or beneficial insect releases). Animals are set apart from their natural food sources in spartan pens. If they are on pastures or rangeland, they are spread out on overgrazed land instead of moving through in tight groups (an evolutionary tactic for safety from predators), taking just enough and leaving the rest to regenerate and to store carbon, while spreading their manure throughout the fields. These farms have a ways to go towards better ecosystem functionality provided by biodiversity.

Farmers can start to or move ahead to diversify their operations, using any number of practices. UC Berkeley’s research findings are reinforcing that diversified farming systems progress and support the farm all along a simple to complex continuum—from mixed cropping and livestock systems, cover crops, hedgerows to riparian corridors on the farm and natural landscapes surrounding the farm. Below, we’ve identified several steps focusing on plant diversity that supports biological diversity along the continuum:

  • Rotating crops, and planting cover crops and pastures to support diverse microorganisms in the rhizosphere.
  • Keeping the soil covered with a crop, a cover crop, pasture plants or non invasive plants as much as possible. /Planting cover crop understory in perennial crops. / Allowing non-invasive plants to grow along fencerows and in ditches.
  • Managing plant pests without using pesticides that harm pollinators, beneficial insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, bats or other mammals.
  • Providing nectar and pollen by planting annual non-invasive sequentially flowering plants interspersed through the crop, at the ends of crop rows and in pastures.
  • Planting native flowering buffer strips, hedgerows, and perennial understories for native plant-eating insects (frogs, lizards, birds, and mammals all rely on these as food sources).
  • Increasing food, cover and nesting sites by planting and conserving structural and compositional diversity of native trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses on crop perimeters and interspersed through pastures.
  • Creating native plant corridors to connect with habitat patches and pastures in the farm and to larger natural areas off the farm. / Support watershed level restoration.
  • Conserving and restoring grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, wetlands, and riparian areas, especially habitats of the highest conservation value that support rare species in a watershed

As more farmers use these kinds of diversified farming practices, we will have a mosaic of food production areas that get better and better at providing valuable ecosystem benefits. 

Food makes us who we are, from our earliest remembrances of how a raspberry tasted, to what was served at an important celebration in our lives. Gastronomists believe we enjoy our food more when we identify with its origin – for example they found that people rate their enjoyment of eating shellfish higher when they are listening to sounds of the ocean.

Times are changing for food and farming. So many more people are paying attention to cooking shows and questioning where their food comes from, and much of that is focused on buying local and pesticide-free food. Local is about eating fresh food and supporting your human neighbors, and pesticide reduction means we and the many species that share this planet are less impacted by toxins. These actions are important, but not enough.

Food and farming embody more than that—they are about supporting the beauty and functionality that biodiversity provides on the farm. Diverse farming systems support our wild neighbors and the ecosystem. If you like eating that local pesticide-free apple, you just might love eating one that grew with native bees buzzing in its flowers, songbirds serenading and keeping it safe from pests, and creeks murmuring as they flow by. If farmers could share the sounds of nature from their farms, it would undoubtedly widen the enjoyment and support for their food. Consumers, farmers and ecologists are helping to evolve the food and farming movement to a new level—one that incorporates biodiversity in our world. Support beautiful farms along the biodiversity continuum!

Download here: How to Conserve Biodiversity on the Farm: Actions to Take on a Continuum from Simple to Complex

Jo Ann Baumgartner is executive director of Wild Farm Alliance. She wrote the initial draft of the recently published USDA National Organic Program Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance; is the main author of Co-Managing Farm Stewardship with Food Safety GAPs and Conservation Practices, and also co-edited Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature: Essays in Conservation-Based Agriculture. Before joining WFA in 2001, she worked for other sustainable agricultural nonprofits, was senior researcher for a book of California’s rare wildlife species, and an organic farmer for over a decade. She has a keen interest in the conservation of native species for their own sake, and the connections between farms and the larger ecosystem.

Wild Farm Alliance promotes a healthy, viable agriculture that helps to protect and restore wild nature.

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