MADISON — Concerns about the decline of pollinators has led to efforts to plant pollinator-friendly habitat everywhere from the backyards of suburban homes to the grass ways along our interstate highways.
Some, like organic farmer Carmen Fernholz of rural Madison, are restoring pollinator-friendly habitat on the farm.
Its disappearance from our agricultural landscape has triggered much of today’s concerns.
Fernholz has been farming in Lac qui Parle County since 1971, committed from the start to organic production. He is among those who helped write the book on organic certification. A field next to his home on what he calls the A Frame Farm has been certified organic for over 40 years.
The loss of pollinator friendly habitat on farms has been subtle, he pointed out. The development of more effective herbicides and Roundup Ready crops has virtually eliminated milkweed from fields and their edges, for example.
Fernholz said the removal of fencerows has been a big factor as well. Fencerows provided a mix of pollinator-friendly plants, and not just for honeybees or monarch butterflies, the two poster insects of our concern about pollinators. Native bees- some of which nest in the ground- as well as a wide variety of other, native insects that are important pollinators thrived in the habitat once provided by fencerows.
To more than make up for this loss, Fernholz added two strips of pollinator-friendly habitat along fields on his farm in early July. Each is about 30-feet wide. In total they provide nearly three acres of habitat for pollinators.
He seeded these buffers between his fields and those of a neighboring farm with a mix of 20 different, native flowering plants and five native grasses. It will take a couple of years for the strips to fully establish themselves.
Once they do, the two strips will bloom in a sequence of early, mid and late season flowers to meet the needs of a diversity of pollinators.
A Conservation Stewardship Program compensates for the costs of adding and maintaining the strip and committing the land. The local NRCS office provided a seeder.
Even without the newly-planted strips, his farm outside of Madison would certainly qualify as a pollinator-friendly location. There is an approximate 30-acre complex of restored prairie and wetland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program that offers and abundance of habitat for wildlife and pollinators.
Organic farming is all about taking a system approach to farming, “seeing how one piece is connected to the other,’’ said Fernholz. Crop rotation is critical. With about 300 tillable acres, he devotes about one-third of the acreage each year to corn, another third to soybeans, and the other third to alfalfa, small grains, legumes and pasture.
He’s always been a student of how natural processes can be harnessed for crop production, and so his concern with pollinators is no surprise. “Just a natural thing for people like myself to pick up on it and find out what the issues were and how we might do something about it,’’ said Fernholz.
Yet he points out that planting strips of pollinator-friendly habitat alongside fields is something that can be done on any farm, conventional or organic. The strips of perennial vegetation also offer the benefit of reducing wind-caused erosion, he noted.
He makes no claim that having an abundance of pollinators on the farm will necessarily benefit crop production, although it might.
For him, the rewards of planting the strips are obvious even before they begin to produce the flowers that will restore beauty and color to a landscape of corn and soybeans.
His two, elementary-school age grandchildren were guests on the farm this past week. They are avid collectors and students of butterflies and other pollinators.
“Look at what they are going to mean to the future,’’ he said of their interest in pollinators. “This is what we always look for, the younger generation to carry on.’’
To learn more, Fernholz recommends two books by the Xerces Society: “Attracting Native Pollinators” and “Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.”