Planting wildflowers or buffering wetlands in your crop field can increase your yields
By Stacy Berry
Have you heard about pollinators, beneficial insects, or incorporating conservation practices to raise yields and decrease inputs on your farm? Probably. There is a plethora of conservation projects that could be implemented, but this article will focus on pollinator strips.
Let’s begin at the beginning: What are pollinators?
Robert Underschultz, senior environmental technician with the Agroforestry and Woodlot Extension Society of Alberta (AWES), explains that “pollinators are animals that help move pollen from the anther (male reproductive organ) of one flower to the stigma (female reproductive organ) of another flower. They collect pollen on their bodies while foraging for nectar and pollen. This activity pollinates flowering plants and allows them to reproduce. Common pollinators in Alberta are bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.”
This simple act of wandering around and looking for food allows pollinators to “sustain and create ecological diversity,” says Janine Paly, an agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada. By moving pollen around as they do, pollinators “ensure seed production occurs within more than 1,200 crops and countless plant species within a landscape.”
Okay, so we know what pollinators are. What are pollinator strips?
Becky Doherty, the general manager of West-Central Forage Association in Alberta, explains, “pollinator strips are land pieces with intentionally planted species that act as a food source for these insects and animals.
“They can vary greatly in size and shape but should always include a diverse array of native pollinator-friendly species.”
“Each pollinator strip will be unique in terms of species selection based on where the strip is located geographically. It’s recommended to plant species that are native to your local habitat,” explains Underschultz.
When one ponders pollinator strips, it’s easy to think of flowers. However, pollinator strips can be more than just flowers. Paly suggests “buffer zones around a wetland or along a body of water. These are natural habitat areas that can be incorporated within any agricultural landscape.”
Christine Downing, an ALUS coordinator with Sturgeon County, Alta., recently facilitated the planting of a “food forest.” There are a variety of fruit trees, like apples, saskatoons, currants, and chokecherries, that grow beautifully throughout Canada. These fruit trees provide many pollinator benefits as well as an abundance of fruit for the picking!
Regardless of the type of pollinator strip you might choose, Downing reminds farmers, “we prefer to use native species (and) diversity of species is a key aspect of pollinator strips. Some plants only flower during the early spring, some flower throughout the summer, and some flower in late summer. It is important to have a large diversity of species planted to attract pollinators throughout the entire pollinating season.”
Now that we know what pollinator strips are, let’s delve into the why – why care about pollinator strips at all?
To put it simply, because everyone should care about pollinators.
Doherty further reminds farmers, “pollinators have the ability to increase crop yield; many food and agriculture products need to be fertilized through pollination to ensure they will reach fully developed fruit and seed.”
Pollination is crucial in agriculture. For instance, it is estimated that most of our food would be lost without pollinator activity, either directly from pollination, or indirectly from the animals needing those plants. Honeybees are often in the spotlight as pollinators, however honeybees are considered domestic livestock. They were brought into North America and bred alongside most crops; populations of honeybees are higher than they have ever been. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about many native pollinator insects.
In fact, there are certain crops that require native species for pollination, such as tomatoes and blueberries. Honeybees’ presence can decrease the native species activity, so it is important to encourage native populations. Pollinator strips are a great way to to achieve this.
“Native pollinators can boost crop and forage production with their pollination services,” says Underschultz.
Depending on the style of pollinator strip, you can get further benefits.
“Pollinator strips in the form of eco-buffers (planted areas that mimic local forest habitat) will also provide other ecosystem services such as wind and erosion control, water management, soil and air filtration, carbon capture, and wildlife habitat.”
Paly: “Pollinator strips offer many environmental benefits. These areas store carbon, clean water, provide valuable habitat, stabilize soils by reducing erosion and filter our air.”
So, if pollinator strips are so amazing, why doesn’t every farmer have a pollinator strip in their field? Well, there are some valid economical and logistical obstacles that prevent farmers from planting strips everywhere.
Undershultz admits, “planting new areas of pollinator habitat may reduce land available for crops and/or livestock. Depending on the size of the project, developing new pollinator habitat can be expensive.
“Project costs may include removing land from production, project management and design, sourcing seedlings, project design, site prep, planting, and monitoring and maintenance (weeding, watering, exclusion of any livestock) for the first few years of establishment.”
Doherty acknowledges the efforts of implementation and maintenance. “There has to be a space for pollinator strips. There is additional work involved in planting plans, and battling invasive weeds that occur naturally in the seed bank or from non-native seed blends.”
“With the adoption of any new conservation practice, awareness is key,” says Paly. “Current agricultural practices, lack of knowledge transfer to producers on the benefits of adopting new practices, and a view that these areas are potentially an inconvenience rather than an overall ecosystem benefit all limit the uptake of incorporating additional habitat like pollinator strips on farms.”
There are some ways to make these costs more palatable to farmers, thankfully.
Downing enthusiastically tells farmers to check if there is an ALUS program available in their county. “The ALUS Sturgeon County program can provide up to 50 per cent funding for the establishment of the project as well as annual payments for the acres where the pollinator strip is located.”
The ALUS program is one of many conservation programs offered throughout Canada and helps with a variety of conservation project types.
Similarly, Paly and Doherty remind farmers to check into local conservation groups.
Doherty: “Look into different non-profit organizations locally to see how you can be supported. Collaboration, networking, and sharing success stories from one farmer to another can go a long way in establishing trust in trialing these types of practices.”
Paly: “Increased partnership opportunities and incentivizing pollinator-friendly seed mixes with programs like Ducks Unlimited Canada’s marginal areas program are also ways to increase uptake.”
Underschultz suggests that farmers look closely at their lands to reduce loss of productive land, farmers can locate pollinator strips on marginal lands that are low in production.”
Underschultz also reminds farmers that they can select species that have dual benefits of production and pollination. “Planting fruit-producing species or forage species can also serve as another source of production.”
Doherty suggests “choose species that are also great cover crops that aid in soil health and nutrient management, or some that can be grazed by animals at the end of season.”
Additionally, farmers don’t need to start from scratch. “Another option is to improve any existing shelterbelts or other vegetated areas that are low in diversity by infilling or underplanting with pollinator-friendly plants.”
Dale Berry, a farmer in Stony Plain, Alta., took some encouragement to put pollinator species on his farm. As a conventional farmer, Berry has “a solid chemical rotation, and I wasn’t going to cut my field into pieces so I don’t spray out the flowers I just planted.”
Some of Berry’s farmland has small wetlands scattered throughout, so he decided to plant pollinators strips in some of the hard-to-get-to spots. “I realized I was wasting time trying to plant in the little nooks and crannies. I straightened my lines a little, and filled in the spots with some pollinator mix so the weeds didn’t take over instead.”
Paly understands the obstacles as well. “When it comes to adopting new beneficial management practices, farmers need to understand how they will work on their farm. To do this, there needs to be extension and demonstration opportunities so they can ask questions and see these practices in action. Producers need to see the economic value of implementing these practices before adopting them.”
As of 2014, an estimated 89 million acres in Canada are dedicated to cropland, “which highlights how important farmers and ranchers are as the stewards of the land,” says Downing.
“Conservation and agriculture go hand-in-hand. Both work together for healthy, sustainable, resilient landscapes,” says Paly.
So if you’ve been wondering about making a change on your farm, ask around. Check into local conservation groups or see if your municipality provides any incentives to conservation projects.
If you go forward with some of the tips from the professionals, you can find conservation projects that fit your farm, gain all the benefits of pollinator species, and maybe make you money in the end. It might not seem easy, but as Berry says “if farming was easy, everyone would be doing it.” BF