Tools for a Pollinator Friendly Farm
We don’t want to be an alarmist blog. But there’s something you need to know.
Modern Agricultural Practices Will Kill Us ALL!!!
Did I get your attention? Good. Now, let me walk that statement back a bit.
The industrial agricultural model, or “conventional” farming, is built on a combination of mono-cropping and use of chemical inputs. This is an efficient system designed to produce high volumes of a specific product (like corn, wheat, soy, or cotton) to meet the demands of a growing population.
This system produces more than enough to feed and cloth our entire planet and has its benefits. The people that utilize this combination are meeting the demand in a way that works, but at what cost? And, to generalize, instead of prioritizing soil health or diversity, farmers who utilize this method are prioritizing scale or the commodification of crops, which isn’t a bad thing! It is a “big ask” to feed the world, and with the use of appropriate technology, more people are able to be fed by fewer farmers. We need to look at farming through a different lens, one that views farms as ecosystems.
Let’s talk about reducing chemical inputs first.
The damaging effects of pesticides and herbicides on native pollinators are well documented. However, pesticides which contain neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides which are designed to affect the neurological systems of insects, are also affecting our beloved honeybees.
You can see where prairie strips would be appetizing for pollinators and help with biodiversity.
Over 80 percent of food crops require pollination, but the populations of insects that do most of the work are shrinking, and many are pointing to the use of these pesticides as one of the main causes.
A quick DYK: The majority of pollinators are not the managed honeybees that thrive in communal hives. They are, in fact, the solitary bee. There are approximately over 4,000 species of native bees in North America, hundreds of which contribute significantly to the pollination of farm crops.
So, it’s important to see how we can help ensure that this diversity of native pollinators not only survives, but thrives.
To do that, let’s talk about increasing plant diversity.
Native habitat around the perimeter of farmland acres encourages pollinator diversity and there are programs that help farmers plant odd shaped corners and highly erodible lands to native vegetation. But, some farmers are using something called flower strips (or “prairie strips”), which are planted within their crops, not just around them, creating a method for insects to travel further into the field and cover more ground for pollination and pest control.
Parasitic wasps can be beneficial to your farm as an alternative to pesticides. This variety of wasp do not usually sting.
Native vegetation planted within the rows of crops can encourage predator insects (like parasitic wasps) to thrive (which prey on aphids and other insects that love to eat farmer’s crops), leaving a reduced need for pesticide (fewer purchased inputs for farmers) use PLUS an increase in pollinator population. Moreover, we’re not even getting into the fact that using these flower rows will significantly improve soil quality…but maybe we should!
The University of Iowa conducted a series of experiments that showed the benefits of “prairie strips” on a mono-culture system. The results showed a reduction in not only soil AND water loss off of property, but also no difference in corn and soybean yields. The strips help keep dangerous greenhouse gases in the soil, and, you guessed it, they proved that it improved the habitat for “beneficial insects” (that means those lovely little pollinators we love so much!)
Pollinator strips and plantings reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides, but we can do even more to promote beneficial insect habitat. Incorporating multi-species cover crops into cropping systems and better utilizing livestock through adaptive grazing management are ways we can also improve habitat, build soil health and protect our water resources. Agroforestry practices like windbreaks, riparian buffers and silvopasture can further our agricultural resilience and allow nature to thrive.
In summary, providing habitat for pollinators has the potential to:
Decrease the need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
Increase water and carbon retention on site
Decrease top soil runoff
Increase native pollinators on site
Provide clean water
Combat climate change
And supply the world with clean, safe, nutrient dense food
Is reducing pesticide use and increasing plant diversity going to bring more pollinators to your farm? Evidence shows that it will. With no discernible change in yields, it seems like a win-win-win-win solution. More bees. Better soil. Profitable farmers. Happy planet.
For more information on implementing these practices on your property, contact your county Soil and Water Conservation District or the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service office nearest you.