The connection between invertebrate life, healthy soils and healthy plants is underemphasized in today’s conversations around conservation.
The overuse of pesticides, especially prophylactic applications, has had dire unintended consequences for farmers—destroying life forms that are beneficial to crops and that contribute to soil health. A more integrated approach is needed to reduce these risks.
Farmers need to be encouraged and supported to engage in regenerative practices that promote crop health and biodiversity, including cover cropping and crop rotation, enhancing riparian buffers, and exploring agroforestry techniques.
The Xerces Society is available to help farmers access both technical assistance and NRCS programs for financial assistance to create and implement holistic land management plans that can both improve their margins and the biodiversity of their farmland.* See note below.
Talking with Kelly Gill of
the Xerces Society
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
Kelly Gill grew up in the Back Mountain region of northeast Pennsylvania, searching for minnows and digging for crawdads in the local creeks. She spent hours examining the life teaming under rocks, and as she grew older and began drawing the creatures she was discovering, she became “totally obsessed” with the diversity of life she was observing. Today Kelly is a pollinator conservation specialist with the Xerces Society and a partner biologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, helping farmers design welcoming habitats for pollinators and other beneficial insects that also just so happen to contribute to the health, biodiversity, and productivity of agricultural systems.
Can you tell us about the Xerces Society and its mission?
We are a science-based organization focused on the conservation and protection of invertebrates. We work with diverse partners—scientists, land managers, educators, policymakers, farmers, and community members—it’s a top down and bottom up model. We are not only thinking about the species that we're interested in, but also how they relate to the rest of a functioning ecosystem.
A lot of animals rely on insects for food. Insects are at the bottom of the food chain. It’s like the game of Jenga, if you remove the foundation that insects make up, other parts of the system collapse. Insects and invertebrates are keystone species in ecosystems, locally and across the globe. Our teams of scientist specialists are looking not only at pollinators, but other invertebrates like freshwater mussels, at-risk species, and they’re engaging in community advocacy for better policies to support these species.
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A small perennial wildflower habitat installed by the Farmscape Ecology Program next to one of the vegetable gardens at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Photo courtesy of Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program & Hudson Valley Farm Hub.
The role farmers have to play in addressing climate change is increasingly acknowledged, and in that role they are being encouraged to focus on soil health, sometimes rather narrowly. The bigger picture of the intertwining relationship between soil health and biodiversity is often left out of the discussion. Do we need to make those connections more obvious to farmers and to the general public?
Typically when we talk about soil health the emphasis has been on soil structure and soil composition and organic matter, which is all-important. But our invertebrates and the life in our soil—the biology— have been underrepresented in conservation discussions and practices pretty widely. It's not as mainstream as we would want it to be. The Xerces Society recently started a program on soil life. We are actually coming out with a book that focuses on animal biodiversity in the soil.
Buckwheat planting in bloom at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Using flowering cover crops, such as buckwheat, as part of a crop rotation promotes soil health and has the added benefit of providing abundant floral resources to pollinators and beneficial insects. Photo credit: Kelly Gill/The Xerces Society.
Can you unpack the relationship between unhealthy soil, plants vulnerability to harmful insects and how we have responded with pesticides that have led to unintended impacts on biodiversity—which has cycled back to further negative impacts on soil and plant health?
Healthy soils create healthier plants that are going to be less stressed. Conversely, we know the less healthy the soil the more stressed a plant is and the higher insect pest damage or disease damage that it might incur. When we have high pest damage over and over again, one of the typical reactions, especially for more conventional farmers, is to be very reactionary and spray with insecticides. That reaction brings about this waterfall of repercussions that add toxins in our environment and that kills off beneficial insects as well. And it leads to ignoring practices that can actually build resilience in the soil.
Instead we need to encourage farmers to focus on preventative measures—for example, more scouting for plants that match soil conditions and implementing practices that are not just reactionary to control pests but prevent them in the long-term by improving soil health--whether it be crop rotation, or practices that protect natural resources, or things like cover cropping and more diverse plant cover. These practices not only help the soil but help you grow healthier plants and reduce their stress.
So planting acres and acres of a monoculture like corn fencepost to fencepost with no other added biodiversity is going to incur a lot more pest damage than a diverse farm that might have similar soil issues, but, say, has some native plantings that can be a source for beneficial insects that attack those plant pests. The goal is to increase that natural biological control.
You talk a lot about the damage that pesticides do across the board to the invertebrate community and the knock-on effects on soil and plant health. What can we do about that?
We have a lot of grassroots efforts and individual farm efforts to look at impacts of insecticides on our important invertebrates, but then we don't have the policy to enforce some of these findings. We need policies in place that look at the registration of some of these chemicals in a way to assess their safety for the environment. Also credits for people that are managing their land without using them would be something to look at in future policies.
Can we delve a bit more deeply into how biodiversity creates more resilient agricultural systems that are more adaptive to climate change?
We are constantly looking at ways to approach this from many different angles. On farms and working landscapes we're thinking about our plant choices. When we create habitat there, we want this to be long lasting, meaningful habitat. Are we selecting those plant species that can withstand periods of flooding or inundation, but also thrive or survive through periods of drought? We're likely going to have those two extremes. If we have more diversity of plant cover we have a better chance at having our landscapes bounce back from more severe storms, more severe conditions, downpours, flooding, things like that.
We are also thinking about the insect response, which is much more difficult when we're talking about millions of different insects. Some of them may adapt to these conditions, others based on the research we have now seem to be more at risk. Among those at risk are our aquatic invertebrates, things like dragonflies, stoneflies, Mayflies, they're really important animals that are indicators of water quality. As our habitat around water bodies is removed, we find that those streams are not shaded enough and are warming more quickly.
There's also the chance that climate change is going to affect the bloom phenology of our plants. So as we're thinking about how pollinators sync up their foraging behavior with different plant blooms. These animals may not be able to find the resources they need at the time they need it. So we're trying to plan ahead for this. There are a lot of unknowns but we are really trying to focus on some of these really bigger concepts. Building more diversity into a landscape is going to help with its resilience in the face of climate change.
We are also looking at combining pollinator conservation with stream restoration. Planting riparian buffers along cropland is one example that will help mitigate flood risks, and prevent soil runoff but also provide habitat for our local wildlife, including pollinators. So we're trying to stack all of these benefits into our conservation planning and implementation on the ground when we work with farmers, because we're really running out of space for conservation as we use the landscape more for human development and farming. So putting these back onto farmland in a way that makes sense to address a lot of different problems is definitely where we're headed. It's complicated and difficult.
An experimental native meadow at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. Photo courtesy of Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program & Hudson Valley Farm Hub.
Often farmers own or lease both cropland as well as woodlots/forestland but focus primarily or exclusively on the former as manageable, productive assets. Can you talk about your work with the NRCS to help farmers realize the important interrelationship between their woodlots and croplands and to understand that practices that enhance that interrelationship can actually yield economic value?
As a partnering biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service I offer technical assistance to farmers for a variety of land uses including crop land, pasture, and forest land. A lot of our programs prioritize the development of forest stewardship plans, but also how to look at your farm holistically. We want to look at what's the interaction between tillable acres and forested acreage--how can we look at this through an agroforestry perspective, using both of these systems to complement each other.
How do we convince farmers to manage their forestland not only to maintain or address conservation priorities but also to have it be economically meaningful? A lot of farmers want to do the right thing but it also comes down to asking “what am I going to gain from implementing these practices or managing this forestland as one more thing I have to do on the farm?”
Can you describe a couple of the incentives that farmers can access to create more holistic plans and implement them on their farm?
We can assist them in creating a long-term forest management or forest stewardship plan written in collaboration with foresters certified through NRCS. A landowner can look at this plan and say, “okay here's a set of however many recommendations, what in this plan looks important to me. What looks like something that I could achieve?” The landowner can then bring that plan back to their local NRCS office and apply for technical assistance for conservation practices to enable the landowner to implement that plan.
That two-step process is popular in making a forestland owner aware of the options out there and also gives them that incentive to come back and implement that plan using some of our programs and, and hopefully access some funding. That could be anything from help with control of invasive species to implementing practices that will make forests more diverse. It might include selective cutting of trees to encourage understory regrowth, removing damaged trees from the forest, or marking which trees would be really profitable if they wanted to harvest them to have any income for firewood. It would be about maintaining that diverse stand in a way that they can gain some economic advantage in concert with having that decision based in a conservation approach.
More farmers are talking about silvopasturing in woodlots are you seeing more of those agroforestry practices?
I think more progressive landowners are using things like silvopasture—combining trees with a foraging area for livestock. A lot of times those trees can also provide value-added product like timber or fruit or nuts. And also they get the benefit of shade and shelter for livestock and that more diverse kind of grazing system.
At the moment we're looking more at things like alley cropping—tree crops interplanted with regular commodity or specialty crops like vegetables and fruits—and riparian forest buffers, wind breaks and other forest farming types of operations. We're looking at that through the scope of invertebrate conservation. I do think a lot of these things will be becoming more popular.
Can you talk about farms in the Hudson Valley area that you are working with? How did you connect with them or how did they connect with you? What are some examples of what they're doing in partnership with you?
A lot of times I will get contacted through somebody that comes to one of the NRCS field offices looking for assistance or directly just because people are aware of the work we're doing so. There’s the plan that farmers can get through NRCS for forestry practices. There's also one available for pollinator habitat. Some of these farms have applied for funding through NRCS to have a holistic farm plan made for pollinator conservation.
Some just have questions. They might say, I want to implement a meadow. Can you provide us with some information? Maybe come out and do a site visit and write up some recommendations that are site specific. We’ve done that for several farms. I've been collaborating with Hudson Valley Farm Hub and Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program on educational outreach events.
We've also been working with fruit growers out in the Lake Ontario plain area. These are people who are growing pollinator-dependent crops so having good pollination is important to them.
Do you find that as farmers start to implement some of these practices, that there is a snowball effect?
Yes. I think some of our practices can be challenging to install. In the Northeast we're in forestland and farmers really gravitate toward the idea of a wildflower meadow, which is a little bit difficult to install in an area that wants to be forest. But once they get through the steps and see the outcome, that brings attention to their farm, especially farms that get a lot of visitors for you-pick or other farm events. They're hearing back from their customers that wow, we're happy to support a farm that is engaged in pollinator conservation. That word of mouth travels through the customer base and then other farms hear about it.
And what may start off as a small planting in an area that was wet or maybe not able to be farmed as easily or productively as some other fields grows into, “can we do something over here in this area? How can we work on our pesticide or pest management program to make that more friendly to pollinators? Or how can we buffer ourselves from neighboring operations that might use pesticides that are highly toxic to invertebrates and pollinators?”
I think farmers are starting to talk to each other too. In New Jersey we have farmer meetings each year where we try to identify regional priorities to learn how and where we should be targeting taxpayer money that funds our NRCS programs. Pollinators have come up at least in the top five priorities for farmers. Some of this might be a little bit of peer pressure as well, which hopefully turns out to be something meaningful. Farmer to farmer word of mouth is really something we rely on to pass these concepts around and continue the conversation. We see that interest growing every year.
If farmers are just beginning to be interested in these practices, how can they educate themselves?
There's so much information on our website that is research- based. We have habitat installation guides, we have general information on pollinators, specific information on declines of certain groups of pollinators and the pesticide impacts and how to mitigate them.
If they decide that they want to do something on the farm they're always welcome to stop in at their local NRCS field office. Or they could contact the Xerces Society's staff directly. We also hold a lot of events, whether they be workshops, full-day courses, or talks at conferences advertised on our web site.
Then, if you qualify, we come do a site visit and talk about your goals. What are your production goals, what are your environmental goals, how would you like to see the land managed, what are the potential opportunities for additional conservation practices? If any of that sparks interest, we can certainly give you advice that will align potentially with the programs that NRCS offers. And we would like to see you get a little bit of funding to implement these practices. When somebody does get financial assistance from NRCS for implementing these practices, it doesn't always cover the entire practice but it does a majority of it.
Do your NRCS assistance programs provide special incentives for specific groups of farmers?
NRCS has special payment rates for organic producers, which are typically smaller farms who have less accessibility to funding or ownership of farm equipment. We also focus funding toward historically underserved applicants giving them a little boost in the amount of financial assistance that they will get.
New York recently passed the Climate Leadership and Communities Protection Act, which is considered one of the most aggressive in addressing climate change in the country. But the role that the farmer can play has not been fully articulated in that bill nor has funding been allocated to farmers, and everyone in the farming community is scrambling to get their voices heard. It is so critical that we recognize that farmers have a lead role to play in fighting climate change and that they need support from policymakers to give them the resources to implement the appropriate practices.
A new team has been formed at the USDA that is pulling experts in different areas into this effort called the Climate Hub. They're studying everything including farmers’ perceptions and their willingness to implement practices, and what those practices are, what are the plant materials that we should be looking at and using to address climate change. People are working in concert to pool their expertise to bring this to the community. I think it will be valuable if some of these practices that are targeting climate change or that are climate smart can be pushed out and that there is more funding for them. It would be great if we can include more programs in the NRCS catalog to make these practices more available and provide that technical assistance to farmers that want to implement them.