In addition to creating healthier soils, regenerative farmers should make the land above the soil more biodiversity-friendly.
Currently few support services are available to help farmers make habitat improvements on their land.
Planting a diversity of seed is a great way to promote biodiversity on pastureland.
Our farm systems must play catch-up with time running out to institute regenerative practices, as so much of our research and resources in past decades have focused on synthetic solutions.
A Conversation with Jennifer Phillips OF GANSVOORT FARM
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
Dr. Jennifer Phillips practices what she preaches. An assistant professor teaching graduate courses in Climate and Agroecology at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy with a Ph.D. in Soil, Crop, and Atmosphere Science from Cornell University, she is also the owner and shepherd at Gansvoort Farm in Clermont. There, as she manages a flock of grass-fed sheep, Dr. Phillips has come to understand the critical importance of what goes on above the ground as well as in the soil. Her goal is to deepen her regenerative agriculture practice as she works to improve soil health and its carbon sequestration properties, to create welcoming habitat for birds and insect pollinators, and to find new ways to make her farm more climate-change resilient.
You have come to believe that regenerative agriculture should be defined in terms much broader than improving soil health.
There is a very strong emphasis on soil carbon in the regenerative agriculture world and rightly so, because of the potential for soil to be a really important carbon sink on the planet. My own interest in it has been very much from that same perspective. But my thinking is shifting a little bit. In addition to trying to create healthy soils, we need to be thinking about how to make the parts above the soil more complex and more amenable to creating habitat for all the other things that need to live in the system and that provide resources for us. There's a bigger story that has to be addressed.
The classic paradigm since WWII has been to use engineering and chemistry to replace all of the things that nature used to do for farming systems. The idea was we could just add our fertilizers and use insecticides to change insect populations and use herbicides to kill the weeds. It has created a high external input system, replacing things that can actually happen through natural processes.
But if we design our farm systems right, we can skip all of those external technical inputs that are not in the long run sustainable. A farm system that's designed appropriately is, for example, about creating optimal habitats in field margins that can provide overwintering cover for important insects that are predators for pest insects. It’s about limiting soil disturbance, limiting tillage – which of course is good for soil carbon, but is also about creating opportunities for beetles and pollinators—a lot of the native bees nest underground.
It’s introducing blooming perennials into the system so there is seasonality of bloom opportunities. Perennial and annual flowering crops feed all of those insects that actually come in handy for protecting crops and pollinating systems. So it’s thinking about the spatial and temporal arrangement of the plants you want to complement your regular crop—for example, perennial fruit in between rows of vegetables.
Plant diversity and lots of red clover create a habitat that bumble bees love at Gansvoort Farm.
It is your belief that Hudson Valley farmers can do much more to enhance the ecosystem services provided by their woodlots and farmable fields.
The Hudson Valley is blessed in that we have all of this regrowth from when we were totally deforested 150 years ago. And now we've got lots of second growth forest around and fields interspersed with that forested area. So there's a lot of diversity there already, a lot of habitat, but it’s somewhat degraded. I think we could go a lot further in terms of being explicit about enhancing biodiversity.
Bird habitat is important because birds can also play a really important role in keeping insect levels under check. Bats are important too, but we're not usually creating habitat for bats in our fields. In our native hickory forest bats can use their super shaggy bark to roost in in the daytime.
The organic vegetable farmers in our region are doing the basic things, they're trying to not do too much soil disturbance and they do have some complexity, planting an 800-foot row of carrots next to an 800-foot row of cabbage, for example. But in terms of trying to actually create more of the kinds of vegetation that you need to support all the beneficial critters, I feel like we have a long ways to go. I'd like to see more people trying to learn about how to design those aboveground systems in a way that really supports the full ecosystem.
Black locust blooms in the 10 year old hedgerow along a hay field at Gansvoort Farm.
In our area of the Hudson Valley, are there currently support services available to help farmers make these habitat improvements?
Not many. There is the Xerces Society, a national not-for-profit of scientists who do research on pollinator habitat and they have a regional technical specialist that covers the Hudson Valley. Kelly Gill, the Society’s Senior Pollinator Conservation Specialist, Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Region, is working on advising farmers on how to try to create better habitats on their farms.
The County Soil and Water administers the Natural Resources Conservation Service grants that help fund the creation of hedgerows and wildflower meadows. But it is my understanding that there's only five or so farms in the area that are actually explicitly using some of their farmland to create pollinator habitat.
What are some of the biodiversity enhancements you are putting into place on your own farm?
The main thing that I've done is I have broken up all of my big fields with rows of trees. One of my initial goals was to get more shade so that I could graze some fields that I couldn't graze because there wasn't any shade in them. So now I've got access to shade in every 24-hour paddock. A lot of what I have planted is black locust because it grows so fast. Black locust also produces a heavy bloom in May and June, which is an important food source for bees. I didn't think about managing it as a timber tree when I first planted it but when I think about the future of my farm, I want to think beyond just the managed grazing that I'm doing now. I'm thinking about potentially converting some fields over to predominantly timber or some other kind of a tree production and then continue to do the grazing also— but really get a lot more kinds of habitat going on my farm. I also have a plan to do a 600-foot wildflower pollinator strip.
I have always used a wide diversity of seed in my pastures, including not only four or five grasses but also a diversity of legumes and forbes. This spring I planted narrow-leaf plantain and forage radish along with a dozen or so other plants in my pastures. One other thing I did this year was ask the local beekeeper to remove his hives from my land since evidently honey bees compete quite strongly with bumble bees and other native pollinators.
Sheep on a diverse pasture at Gansvoort Farm.
You see a lot of promise in solar grazing as a way to provide more wildlife habitats on farmland.
If we're really going to ramp up solar to the level that we need to have over the next 20 years we're going to have to think hard about how and where we want to put it and how can we co-locate agriculture and solar. Solar actually can create a rich habitat if you set the panels up so that they are far enough apart to get a decent size tractor between the rows. And if you set it up so that the land can be grazed, then you're not using a fossil fuel fired mower to mow it. It’s also really good for animal welfare because the animals always have access to shade from the panels. There is also a lot of other work that shows it's good for other critters. Predator birds like falcons and hawks can use the panels as perching sites. The layout also tends to be a really good habitat for mice so the predator birds have a perfect habitat for hunting. There are also studies that suggest there are some row crops that do better under solar panels in hot climates because it provides for lower transpiration. So the crops don't use as much water, and they can still grow without getting so stressed in the middle of the day. There's a lot of interesting work to be done on that.
A new hedgerow in front of a 10-year old row of Black Locust with mature trees in the distance at Gansvoort Farm.
It seems our greatest challenge in redesigning our farm systems is to play catch-up with time running out, having put so much of our efforts over the last decades into synthetic farming inputs.
Yes, we're really hooked on the technological fix. We made such strides in learning how to do that. And at the time it seemed to make sense. Our yields have quadrupled from before the War to what we can produce now. A big chunk of that is due to synthetic fertilizer. But we now know there is a huge environmental cost to all that fertilizer.
One of my arguments is that if we had put the last 50 years of scientific research funding towards trying to figure out how to do ecosystem farming we would be leaps and bounds beyond where we are. There's so much potential and we've just barely scratched the surface of what we have. We need to keep working on it.