Farmland Need Not be a Sacrificial Lamb

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During yesterday’s otherwise excellent field day at the USDA’s soil conservation lab in Morris, the “S” word reared its ugly head. “S” as in our best farmland needs to be “sacrificed” in the name of food and fuel production, leaving room for only an odd corner here and there to provide a smattering of natural habitat. Such an attitude undervalues not only the landscape that dominates this portion of the country, but the innovative people who steward it.

It happened during a tour stop that involved a fascinating discussion on the role Midwestern farm country can play in improving insect pollinator habitat in North America. As we’ve described in this blog before, scientists now suspect that one of the main reasons honey bees are experiencing unprecedented die-offs is that their diet has become too impoverished. That’s because in farm country few nutritionally rich flowering plants are available for the insects to feed on during the growing season.

Instead, what they find in places like southern Minnesota are monocultures of corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, these bees are having more demands imposed on them than ever before, as Midwestern hives are hauled to places like California during the winter to pollinate the valuable almond crop. Malnourished bees are more vulnerable to any curve balls nature or humans throw their way: nasty weather, disease, pests, pesticides, habitat disruption.

Jeff Hull, a third-generation bee keeper and president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, told the tour participants that in his home base of Ottertail County, alfalfa grown on dairy farms used to provide excellent foraging areas for bees. When the dairies went, so did the alfalfa.

“In June we have nothing,” he said, referring to the unavailability of natural bee food in the countryside surrounding his hives. As a result, there have been times in recent years that Hull has lost up to 48 percent of his bees in die-offs.

Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m. (PAm), a nonprofit that is funding research that helps beekeepers and pollinated crops, said what happens in places like Minnesota during a typical growing season has a huge impact on how successfully crops like almonds are pollinated in California during the subsequent winter.

“Honey bees need a diverse diet, just like humans need a diverse diet,” she said. “Sorry, but the corn and soybeans aren’t going to cut it for us. The way we’re going to bring that death loss down is to have flowering crops in this area throughout the summer.”

That means more alfalfa, oilseed crops, native prairie, trees, and the odd flowering plant that may be found in pastures and fencerows.

That’s why PAm is supporting research at the Morris soil lab on specialty oilseed crops that are pollinator-friendly. This is exciting stuff, and greatly expands the role a government research facility can play in diversifying farming in this country.

If healthy Midwestern pollinator habitat is as valuable to say, the almond industry, as we’re led to believe, then a huge economic incentive for farmers to diversify could be in the making. What if industries that rely on pollinators paid Midwestern farmers to make more biodiversity a part of their enterprises?

Such a scenario may be nearer to fruition than one might think. As it happens, after the soil lab field day I heard about an initiative in southern Minnesota where a nut company is considering paying farmers in that region to introduce more pollinator-friendly plants onto their operations. (I’m hoping to learn more about this endeavor in the near future.)

But at one point during the pollinator presentation at the soil lab, the research agronomist leading the discussion made it clear that, at least in his opinion, only a very small proportion of ag acres in the country’s midsection could play a positive role in providing bee-friendly habitat. He said that in areas like Ottertail County there are irregularly-shaped fields, drumlins and poor soils—perfect for growing oilseeds and other flowering plants that benefit pollinators.

“But not so much in places like Iowa, which are cultured to raise corn and soybeans,” he added.

In one fell swoop, the scientist dismissed the majority of farmland in the Midwest as potential pollinator-friendly habitat. He’s right, large portions of the Corn Belt have been “cultured” for row crops. But that “culturing” was done by humans, not evolutionary biology. It’s not like corn and beans are just an innate, irreversible part of all that former prairie’s “nature.” Just as we cultured the landscape, we can unculture it, or at least add dashes of diversity here and there on working farmland—and ideally make that diversity pay.

The scientist can’t be blamed for this “farm the best, conserve the rest” attitude—it’s quite common within the ag research community, as well as among environmentalists, government agency personnel and policy makers. LSP’s Dana Jackson wrote about “agriculture as ecological sacrifice” in the 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat. “Expectations for experiences with nature in farming country are very low these days in the context of modern agriculture,” she wrote.

And as we all know, when expectations are low, they are often met with equally low outcomes.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Farmers and researchers in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest are proving that working farms can be home to natural habitat. The prairie strips research taking place smack dab in the middle of Iowa corn country is one example. Another presentation at the soil lab Thursday was given by LSP’s George Boody, who described how the Chippewa 10% Project is working to make it profitable for farmers to add perennial plant systems to small, but targeted, areas of the Chippewa River watershed.

“Biological diversity in farming systems can help farmers deal with shocks to the system, providing more resiliency,” said Boody, adding that those shocks can be agronomic as well as economic. It can also help pollinators such as bees deal with their own shocks to the system.

Such an initiative as Chippewa 10% relies on not just developing new production and marketing systems. It also relies on the innovation of the farmers who are on the land every day of their lives. Such innovators know that the land can produce more than a handful of row crops when given a chance, when expectations are high. And as Wes Jackson has pointed out, a truly sustainable agriculture is one in which we humans go so far as to “meet the expectations of the land.”

One example of expecting a lot from the land while simultaneously attempting to meet terra firma’s own expectations of ourselves is just a 20-minute drive from the soil lab in Morris. On Thursday, some of the field day participants took a side trip to the Pope County farm of Luverne and Mary Jo Forbord, who have converted over 300 acres of row crops to grass since 2002.

They’re producing grass-fed beef for some very appreciative customers and even experimenting—in partnership with various institutions, agencies and conservation groups—with raising native prairie as a feedstock for biofuel. Did I mention that before 2002 some of those acres regularly produced 200 bushels of corn per acre? This isn’t exactly marginal farmland we’re talking about here.

As we waded through the grass, the land was alive with bees, dragonflies and insects I couldn’t even begin to identify. The electric thrum of biodiversity was everywhere. It’s clear the Forbords have great expectations for these rolling acres, and the land is responding in-kind.


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