A few weeks ago I attended a talk at Whitted Bowers Farm given by Dr. David Orr of North Carolina State University and Tony Kleese of Earthwise Company on establishing beneficial insect habitats on organic farms. Whitted Bowers is right down the road from Maple Spring Gardens (the farm that I’m currently working on) in Cedar Grove, NC, and is known in the area for growing some of the most delicious fruits.
Funded through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, the goal of this research project was to understand what would be the best beneficial insect habitat for the Piedmont region of North Carolina. A result of a collaboration between public (NC State University) and private (Earthwise Company) interests, this information is highly practical, as many area farmers (organic or not) rely on native pollination for their crops. According to a publication from the USDA, “Using Farm Bill Programs for Pollinator Conservation,” there is a dire need for establishing habitats for native bee populations, as European honey bees are facing many threats from diseases such as Colony Collapse Disorder. Thus, providing farmers with an example of exactly how to create these habitats on their own farms is valuable for the future of our nation’s food production.
The summer after graduating from college, I worked at the North Carolina Botanical Garden as an intern in the Horticulture Department and learned, among many things, the importance of conserving native plants. The project at Whitted Bowers represents to me a synthesis, in my own life, of the organic farming and native plant world. While it seems a bit obvious (as sometimes the most basic things do), planting habitats that attract native pollinators is an extremely practical thing to do on a farm. One of the ways to do this, and one of the more memorable points from the talk was to “farm ugly.” This means that instead of having neatly manicured spaces around your crops, you should plant native plant species that will attract some of your favorite native pollinators. For optimal pollination, the research team recommended planting (or letting be) at least 20% of your acreage in native beneficial plants. In the Piedmont area of North Carolina, a few of the more easily recognized examples of what these crops are include: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). The test-plot at Whitted Bowers is now three years old, and is helping area farmers learn how to integrate native species within their crops.
Laura Stephenson is an environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she focused in environmental and community health. She is currently working full-time at a small, organic farm outside of Hillsborough, North Carolina called Maple Spring Gardens. Laura writes the Farming and the Local Food Scene series about her experiences with local farms and farmers around the Piedmont area of North Carolina.