Story by Tovah Martin

Photos courtesy of the Farmscape Ecology Program

What do native bees, parasitic wasps, and bobolinks have in common with farmers? That’s what these researchers are working hard to discover.

Not everyone connects the dots. Not many of us see the big picture when it comes to nature and its intricate workings. For example, when was the last time you thought about bobolinks and mowed your fields to facilitate their nesting practices? Although the link between milkweed and monarchs has received a lot of press recently, the world is full of similar associations that have not been given equal play. The Farmscape Ecology Program at Hawthorne Valley Association based in Ghent, New York, is dedicated to doing something about that blip.

The first seeds (so to speak) for the program were sown in 2001 when Conrad Vispo (a wildlife ecologist) and his wife, Claudia Knab-Vispo (an ethnobotanist) came back to live in Columbia County, New York, to be in closer proximity to Dr. Vispo’s parents. Hawthorne Valley Farm was looking for a grocery buyer for their store, and Conrad Vispo took the job, shouldering cow milking and several other farm duties when the need arose. So he gained a unique familiarity with farm practices and the cadence of farm life. He loved the region, he was equally fond of Hawthorne Valley Association and the personal relationships that he forged, but he wanted to return to science. As a result, the Farmscape Ecology Program was born in 2003.

In this unique program, Vispo and Knab-Vispo explore what farming can provide for nature and vice versa. Together with social anthropologist Anna Duhon, as well as technicians, volunteers and interns, they ask questions that are not often posed, such as how farm management can be linked to the rhythms of nature for mutual benefit.

They look at the historic changes in land use and agricultural practices—such as fire control and beaver trapping—and how they have affected the overall ecology of regions over expanses of time, for better or worse. They explore the bonanza for certain species that occurred when farmers began cutting hayfields by scythe, thus benefiting bobolinks and meadow larks that nest in grasslands. But then they also explore the problems that arose when mechanized mowing made earlier, more frequent, more dramatic cutting possible. They talk with farmers and weigh the options and their ramifications for wildlife. They ask the question: How can farms get the most agricultural benefit from land while still serving the wild community? They delve deep into natural communities to seek the answers.

Their research is critical to the long range health of the entire region (including Connecticut and Massachusetts) and the future of farming. But the Farmscape Ecology Program isn’t limited only to farms per se. They also talk to landowners who seek to manage their expanses of land sensitively.

“We help people interested in birds, insects, wildlife, and native plants appreciate the natural aspects of the land,” explains Vispo. “Many homeowners are not aware of the native habitats on their land. We help them appreciate what they’ve got.”

The program can provide “land biographies” to create an historic and ecological picture of how a landscape is interacting with the world around it—while also including all creatures great and small in the profile. Perhaps a beneficial insect will fare better if a certain component is added to the scene or a practice is adopted.

“Even a weedy little swamp can serve an important role,” explains Vispo. If a client is pondering putting in a pond, a study by the Farmscape Ecology Program can help them understand how that decision might, or might not, fit with the overall ecology of their land. Furthermore, the program might help them adopt pond management practices that will make their water feature a more valuable ecosystem.

“From conventional farms to organic systems, from farmland to private land, by helping land managers see the nature around them we try to broaden values that people fit into their land management,” says Vispo. Addressing everything from soil erosion to habitats for beneficial insects, they consult about the issues of landscapes large and small.

Their research isn’t one sided, they work to create win/win relationships. “We also explore what nature can provide to farming,” Vispo says. Although the plight of the honeybee has received a lot of publicity in recent years, that non-native pollinator is just one insect in a vast picture.

“New York State is home to 400-450 native bees,” Vispo says, “although they do not produce harvestable amounts of honey, they provide pollination services.” Apples, squashes and strawberries are among the fruit and vegetable crops dependent on pollination by insects. And bees are only one player in the picture. Spiders, parasitic wasps, flies, and beetles can also impact crops positively. For example, parasitic wasps can control the ravages of tomato hornworms. Those parasitic wasps need nectar crops to survive.

The Farmscape Ecology Program explores the relationships between wildflowers and the good guys of the bug world. Adding a wildflower strip or a hedgerow might make all the difference to beneficial insect population numbers. The frequency of mowing the undergrowth below an orchard can prove key to supporting the asters and goldenrod that nurture insects. Leaving snags of dead wood from fallen trees can make a huge difference to boost habitats for insects as well as birds. As Vispo explained, when a tree dies, it has only lived half of its ecological life. What it provides to the system after death is equally important.

Many local gardeners are considering the benefits of working with native plants to encourage native insect species. With the increased interest, the Farmscape Ecology Program is researching how this practice is impacting local ecosystems. “Our understanding is still evolving,” said the scientist. They are comparing old fields where European plants tend to dominate with landscaped meadows rich in native plants.

The Farmscape Ecology Program is continually coming up with fascinating finds. They are forever learning about shy native species and how we can encourage their numbers by preserving habitats that work for them. Conrad Vispo is a keen advocate for thinking beyond borders.

“When you are supporting native sustainable land, it’s not just what happens within the farm fences,” he explains. “When you really think long term, it goes beyond what the farmer does. It’s what everybody does in the landscape. Supporting local agriculture involves thinking about the ecology of the whole agrarian landscape, whether that is a farm, backyard, or woods.”

For more information on the Farmscape Ecology Program, go to www.hvfarmscape.org. To keep abreast of up-to-the-minute findings that the program discovers, follow them on Facebook. As Conrad Vispo put it, “By providing information, we hope to make a difference.”