Farmers love to see ladybird beetles in their fields, and they know that parasitic wasps help control aphids. Livestock farmers let dung beetles do some of the really hard work of improving their pastures; these beetles break down livestock dung, roll it up into balls and tunnel underground to store it, in the process breaking up the soil and making it more friable.
Still, for some of us, it seems a little unnatural for farmers to go about planting weed plots on purpose, to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Of course, since the plants are actually planted and grown for a purpose, we wouldn’t really label them “weeds” in this scenario — they are more like crops. Still, you get the gist.
Regardless of what you call the plants, the operators at Hickory Meadows Organics, or HMO, near Whitakers, N.C., believe in trying things “out of the box.” The farm recently held a field day, “Establishing Beneficial Insect Habitat on Organic Farms,” in conjunction with the North Carolina State University Organic Grain Projects Canola Field Tour. The insect habitat part of the program was led by David Orr, an NCSU entomologist, and Tony Kleese, one of the owners of Earthwise Co., a community and agriculture consulting company.
• Hickory Meadows Organics boosts “beneficials” on farm.
• It recently hosted a beneficial insect habitat field day.
• Such habitats have a role in several types of operations.
The folks at HMO think the idea of creating habitat for beneficials is a solid one. Still, Peyton McDaniel, one of the operators, says the idea is a work in progress. They put in the plant plot to see how it turns out and how it will benefit them.
Another advantage is that land taken out of production for this purpose can be eligible for cost-share funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“After all, while I guess this land could be productive, it is not productive for us at all in terms of growing an organic crop on it,” Peyton says. “The plot is up next to the woods, for example. So, instead of letting it grow up in trees and saplings that we cut back once a year, well, why not take that land and try to do something with it that can be beneficial to us from an agricultural standpoint, as well as a wildlife standpoint?”
Tracing the links
HMO grew out of a well-known conventional farming operation around Whitakers, N.C. O.J. Smith Farms is owned and managed by Orpha Gene Watson and his two sisters, Sandra McDaniel and Lori Strickland. It is a traditional row-crop operation. But when Orpha Gene’s son, Phillip, and Sandra’s sons, Billy and Peyton, began considering careers in farming, they became excited about organic possibilities.
The first year they convinced a skeptical Orpha Gene to let them raise 20 acres of organic oats. From that start, they soon added organic tobacco, which they contracted with the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. New organic crops quickly followed. Along the way, Orpha Gene became a believer.
HMO is now a 400-acre entity that the three young men — “the younger generation” — operate separately and clearly distinguish from the conventional operation. Their organic crops now include sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans and canola, and they’ve also grown other organic crops like wheat. And right next door, O.J. Smith Farms continues to grow conventional tobacco, cotton, corn, soybeans and cucumbers on about 1,100 acres. The younger generation still works with that farm, as well.
Help from unlikely source
The cultivation of beneficial insects has been a longstanding practice for organic operations, since organic operations are limited in their use of crop protection chemicals. No wonder, then, that HMO is on board with beneficial insect cultivation.
However, it makes sense that this kind of system, with properly selected plant species and properly designed management practices, could be helpful on a conventional crop farm, too. Also, many farmers now raise game on their farms. Orr says the insects cultivated on plots can be a good food resource for game birds and wildlife. Though it can be difficult to quantify the benefit, it doesn’t mean a benefit isn’t there.
In any of the scenarios — organic or conventional crop farm, or plots to benefit game or wildlife — the general strategy would be similar, although the actual management options would likely be different. That is, the plant species might be different, the plot shape or location might be different.
The balance of desired insects, whether predators, parasites or pollinators, might be different, too. That is where expertise like that of Orr and Kleese comes in.
The chicken or the egg
One of the first questions people new to this concept ask is where the beneficials come from in the first place. The answer might surprise you.
“A lot of people assume farmers buy a lot of beneficial insects, but it turns out they don’t,” Orr told those attending the beneficial insect habitat field day. “Instead, they really try to encourage what is already on the farm. Providing habitat is one way that can be done.”
Up front, people also want to know what kind of plants are best. Kleese does indeed keep a list of plant species seeds — in this case, specifically for organic producers (see below). Orr says the particular plant species may not be as important as following specific big-picture principles.
The first of these guiding principles is to provide plant diversity on the farm.
“What you don’t want is a lot of mowed field borders, a line of pine trees and then crops,” Orr says. “There is no diversity in the landscape in that kind of situation. What you want in your landscape is as many different kinds of plants as possible.”
Secondly, Orr adds, operators want to use plants that provide resources all season. For example, when you consider blooming plants, pay attention to when they bloom and choose the right mix based on that.
Finally, Orr says, use native plants. “Native plants are going to enhance populations of native insects that are noncrop pests,” he says. “Those are the food resource that predators and parasites need when there is nothing in these crop fields.”
Some management points
Kleese notes there is a wide range of management techniques, and the mix of plant species can also contribute to these as well.
As mentioned above, he has a seed mix chosen specifically for organic farms. He notes the best time for planting this particular mix is in late April and early May. Growers should avoid areas with high fertility for these plots.
Equipment needed includes a tractor, a disk tiller, a field cultivator, small buckets, a cultipacker mower and weedeater.
When seeding, Kleese says it’s best to keep grass seed separate from flowers. Generally, use separate buckets for each. Distribution by hand is easiest. Use a cultipacker or similar equipment to enhance seed-to-soil contact.
The first year, mow the plot between four and six times, “depending on how fast things are growing,” Kleese says. In the second year, don’t mow it at all. In the third year, in February or March, you burn down.