Farmscape Ecology

How can nature benefit from farms? How can farms benefit from nature? The Farmscape Ecology Program is coming to the Farm Hub.

Farmscape Ecology

How can nature benefit from farms? How can farms benefit from nature? For the past ten years, these are questions that have inspired the work of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, an LEP grantee partner that will be bringing its unique perspective on farms and natural environments to the Hudson Valley Farm Hub over the coming months.

This perspective begins with understanding the natural systems already at play on the land. As Conrad Vispo of the Farmscape Ecology Program says, “Before you can understand a story, you need to understand who the characters are.” Conrad and his colleagues prepare ecological maps of farms, showing not just the diversity of plants and animals present on the land, but also how different areas of a farm might contribute some of the same services as those provided by natural habitats. Conrad and his colleagues refer to these areas as “analogies” to natural habitats.

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Conrad Vispo of the Farmscape Ecology Program during a recent visit to the Farm Hub.

Many vegetable farmers, for instance, depend on bees to pollinate their plants in May and June. But bees need food and habitat for the other ten months of the year too. Supporting bees when they are not in the field is a service nature provides farmers. In early spring, before anything has bloomed on local farms, some of the first wildflowers appear in floodplains across the Hudson Valley, blooming early in the year to take advantage of the direct sunlight that comes through the forest canopy before the trees have their new leaves. Known as ephemerals because their flowering is so brief, these plants can help provide early-season nectar and pollen sources for some of the bees that will later pollinate field vegetables. Conserving the habitats where ephemerals and other early-season flowers thrive can be an important part of crop management.

Bees aren’t the only invertebrates that play an important role on farms. Ground beetles, spiders, parasitic wasps, and many other species prey on pests that can damage crops. The Farmscape Ecology Program’s work at the Hawthorne Valley Farm describes how these invertebrates spend part of the year in fields providing this important pest management service to farmers, and at other times of year live in the field edges and surrounding forests. Careful management of hedgerows, field edges, and adjacent fields can encourage the presence of these beneficial insects.

Nature also benefits from farms in ways that are often overlooked.

Historically, most of the Hudson Valley was covered with forest. This was a forest constantly in flux. Two of the major disturbances causing this flux were fire and flooding, often resulting from beaver activity. Today, certain species of plants and animals that have evolved to live in habitat created by beavers or maintained by fire can be found on farms. For example, a wet pasture can serve as what the Farmscape Ecology Program would call an “analogy” to a beaver meadow; a lightly used cattle pond may welcome some of the native species once found near beaver ponds such as tree frogs, painted turtles, and some species of dragonflies. In other words, wild animals and native plants which would otherwise find themselves without a natural habitat can sometimes find their needs met on farms.

Some of the animals which would have relied on habitats in the past created by forest fires can today find a parallel in post-cow shrubland, where the undergrowth has been thinned by grazing. Certain native grasses found in wild hilltop meadows (which were often maintained by wildfire), for example, can be found in dry hill pastures where, relative to other farm fields, biodiversity is high with a large percentage of wild species.

A species of crab spider poised to snare a passerby. These spiders do not use webs for hunting, relying instead on wait-and-grab tactics. Photo courtesy of the Farmscape Ecology Program.

For grassland nesting birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks, or grasshopper sparrows who nest in prairies, a late-mowed hay field can also provide good nesting habitat. Certain old farm woodlots, despite having been logged or pastured, have never been completely opened and ploughed. As a result, they may harbor native plants including some of our native orchids that are rare or absent in forests that have regrown on farm fields. In this sense, such old woodlots can serve as partial analogies (but not replacements) for primary forests.

Being conscious of the ecological analogies that the land may provide can help us strengthen the relationship between farms and nature. If we mow a hayfield before the young birds have left their nests, but too late or too frequently for the parents to successfully re-nest, the analogy with a prairie isn’t valid. If we fertilize a thin-soiled pasture or overgraze a wet meadow, those habitats may lose many of their native open-land plants and hence insects. In some cases, early haying, grassland fertilization, or intense grazing are a necessary part of producing food, but exploring new practices can reveal relatively easy ways of enhancing the value of habitats for wild creatures.

These analogies are of course not perfect re-creations – there are certain species of plants and insects that would thrive in a beaver pond or natural grassland but that won’t find a home in a cattle pond or pasture. Conservation of wild areas and management of land under non-agricultural development clearly have important roles to play in regional conservation. Farms are only one part of a broader conservation effort.

“A lot of what we do is work with farmers to help them understand the history and ecology of their landscape and to better see those potential analogies,” Conrad says. “The farmers know a lot better than we do how that land should be farmed; our hope is just to broaden the perspectives that they bring to that farming.”

The Farmscape Ecology Program’s approach explores the potential synergies between farming and nature conservation. In Conrad’s words, “Agriculture has the potential to create important nature conservation benefits and those benefits, in turn, have the potential to contribute to agriculture.” This is a perspective that offers an exciting way forward for environmentalists and farmers working together to build a more sustainable Hudson Valley.

Click here to see a gallery with more photos from the Farmscape Ecology Program visits to the Farm Hub.