By Marcia Wolfe, Biology/Ecology Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
Believe it or not, we can benefit from farming ecologically; some of us already are. Not only can we do it, but ecological farming can also help improve and save our lives by preserving and enhancing environmental quality through the air, soils, and water. Plus, it can help save money which will then increase profits. Ecological farming helps to ensure continued high quality of the soils and water necessary not only for farming but also necessary for healthy human lives.
That is all well and good, but what is ecology? Sounds like a scary scientific word. What does it mean to you, specifically? Ecology is the study of the relationships and connectivity among all living beings, including humans, and all aspects of the physical environment, including air, water, and soils. To be honest, we humans are only beginning to figure out what all those relationships are or even some of the implications of those relationships and interactions. But it seems to me like we should be taking advantage of the knowledge that we have gained. In some small respects we have, but why so little?
Some years ago, I gave a class on working with the environment on agricultural and water projects. Included in that class was a section of the use of owl nest boxes to create habitat for owls who help control rodents. It was presented and came and went. About a year later, I encountered one of the class participants who operates a large vineyard. He was excited to see me and told me that he had installed a number of owl nest boxes at his vineyards. He said it really worked. I acknowledged that was fantastic and asked if he would co-author a paper on the subject with me so we could spread the news. He said, “Heck no! Why would I want to give away my economic advantage over my competitors?” And that was that. I have spoken about it to others over the years since then. I have noted that now one can observe owl nest boxes scattered on a variety of agricultural properties, including orchards, and row crops. For a very limited input, the positive benefits of having owls are fantastic. So, my question is, why doesn’t everyone do them?
Owls are amazing birds. They are territorial, each pair using broadly about 100 acres. A pair generally uses the same nest site throughout their life! During egg laying, incubation and hatching, the male brings meals to the female, and he roosts every night nearby keeping watch over his mate, and the subsequent hatchings. When the young are mature enough to leave the nest, they move on to find their own territories. So, it seems, everyone should use owl nest boxes. An alternative is to have a few trees where an owl may nest, or one could leave open the top floor of the barn. In addition, I have observed hawks foraging in the daytime from the top of nest boxes or nest box poles. They of course also prey upon rodents and other animals that can be destructive to our crops.
Ecological farming helps us! Farming ecologically can help eliminate creating some of the disturbed habitats that actually increase the number of rodents and menacing crop damaging ground squirrels. For example, take the California ground squirrel. They absolutely love living in disturbed habitats with sparse weeds. In these types of habitats their numbers actually increase. We have discovered that by planting a seed mix of native shrubs and forbs in these open barren areas, the number of ground squirrels is reduced. It works. We have reported on it before.
Planting native shrubs doesn’t even require irrigation. It takes a couple years for them to get large enough to enjoy, but they do some other amazing things besides helping to keep the dust down. Based on counting ground squirrel burrows, simply planting scattered native shrubs reduced ground squirrel burrows on and adjacent to the planted area by 90% percent. That reduction is not insignificant. In addition, you don’t have to replant them, they persist, and self-regenerate. It eliminates the need to use pesticides that also kill the birds that crawl inside the poison distribution tubes. In addition, the presence of the shrubs stabilizes the habitat and reduces the number of annual weeds.
Not needing to use herbicides and/or soil sterilant also creates benefits of not adversely affecting ground water or surface water quality as toxins are not being added to the soil or vegetation that can result in adversely impacted groundwater. I can’t say I was pleased to learn recently that there is glyphosphate in my Cheerios and other food stuffs.
During our evaluation of the native species plantings, the entomologist working with us discovered to his surprise an unanticipated finding and serendipitous result of planting even small areas of native shrubs adjacent to fields and alongside roads and canals. He found green lace wings in the middle of an adjacent vineyard adjacent to a small area that had been planted with native shrubs. The entomologist said the presence of a green lacewing in a vineyard would normally be completely unheard of. He was so excited as this is an unexpected positive benefit of maintaining even small areas of native shrubs adjacent to agricultural fields! The entomologist was amazed and never in his career had he seen a lacewing in the middle of a large vineyard. He said one would normally never have such a finding and said the only explanation was the presence of the recently planted native shrubs across the county road from the field.
If you are unfamiliar with the green lacewing, they are an incredibly wonderful insect that devours soft bodied pest insects and their eggs that are found on agricultural crops (and on other vegetation). They are a kind of chartreuse color with an open lacy wing pattern created by transparent wings with green veins, from which its name originated. They devour both soft bodied insects and insect eggs. They are a marvelous farmer’s helper. Interestingly, they are nocturnal and that probably helps protect them from insect-eating birds while they are foraging. They are an incredibly voracious and marvelous beneficial insect that helps to protect and enhance healthy agricultural production with the minimization of pest insects. So, discovery of its presence is another reason to plant ecologically.
These are all things that are self-perpetuating and don’t have to be repeated or cost more money, with the possible exception of needing to clean out the owl nest boxes when needed. So again, I continue to wonder why everyone is not doing them? I recently read a paper on carbon sequestration and soil health. Similar to my observations, considering the positive impacts of carbon sequestration, the authors of that paper also did not understand why more growers were not doing it. Maybe it’s the same reason many still do not wear masks and conduct spatial distancing in this era of Covid.
Caring for and maintaining a healthy agricultural environment is important for all life, not the least of which is our own. So do the practice, spread the word, and improve the world.