Thursday, August 11, 2022

A Way To Sustain: Pollinator Fields

Bringing Biodiversity And Sustainability Into The Equation Daily

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
ASSISTANT EDITOR

When approached by Delta F.A.R.M. years ago, Michael and Doreen Muzzi of TKT Farms in Shaw, Mississippi, made a decision that would reap benefits for years to come. The question was whether they’d be interested and able to put in a pollinator field. The answer was an easy yes.

What made the answer to create this 10-acre pollinator field so simple? It was a no brainer, Doreen said.

“It was just pasture beforehand, so why not?”

Pollinator Fields For Sustainability

Since 1998, Delta F.A.R.M., or Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management, has advocated for and worked toward a more sustainable environment throughout the Mississippi Delta.

Today, Delta F.A.R.M. works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the USDA to accomplish goals as they relate to bringing sustainability through the use of pollinator fields.

The NRCS’s website stated, “Unfortunately, some species of pollinators have seen a 90% decline in their populations over the last decade.”

The concern over the decline in pollinator numbers has inspired many to implement pollinator fields on their own farms throughout the Delta.

Michael (left) and Doreen Muzzi of TKT Farms in Shaw, Mississippi, pictured with Tim Huggins, executive director of Delta F.A.R.M.

The field on the Muzzi farm is part of Delta F.A.R.M.’s Operation Pollinator initiative, originally developed by Syngenta. Operation Pollinator is one of many sustainability initiatives put forth by Delta F.A.R.M. to help address environmental conservation and stewardship — one that has proven effective in ensuring diverse beneficials are making their homes on TKT Farms and others in the Delta.

“If we can do something this easy from a public relations and sustainability standpoint, we should do it,” Doreen said. “If we can make changes that conserve and improve the land we depend on as farmers, it’s our responsibility to do so. We trust the experts to tell us how best to go about doing that.”

Pollinator Fields For Conservation

The “experts” Doreen speaks about, specifically for TKT Farm’s pollinator habitat field, include Tim Huggins of Delta F.A.R.M. and Dr. Katherine Parys of USDA.

Huggins, executive director for Delta F.A.R.M. and Delta Wildlife, said they have more than one million acres enrolled in Delta F.A.R.M.. He said membership is free, and they only ask members to fill out a conservation assessment for their operation each year.

“We plant it, manage it and spray it with help of Syngenta,” he said.

Huggins spoke on several techniques they follow when establishing and managing a pollinator habitat field. These include a chemical burndown in late summer or fall, a light disking of the area and a broadcast planting with a no-till planter of wildflower seed to start the field. Moving forward, he said there are a few herbicide applications and typically a third-year burn or disk based on biology of the field.

Dominant flowers during June on TKT Farms: yellow Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and purple Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa).

“We want a flush of flowers throughout the year,” he said. To do this, they plant a combination of perennials and annuals.

Michael said they do their best to control only the weeds not wanted. “It’s intentionally weedy,” he said. “Both flowering species and weedy species are included in the pollinator plant mix.”

Katherine Parys, research entomologist with USDA ARS’ Pollinator Health in Stoneville, Mississippi’s Southern Crop Systems Research Unit, collaborates with Delta F.A.R.M. and Operation Pollinator. She monitors and documents pollinators using pollinator plantings in the region.

“We use a mixture of active and passive collecting methods to examine what bees are there and when,” she said.

For active methods, she remarked, “We are out in the field with nets — documenting which bees are visiting which flowers. The passive collection methods utilize trapping methods, which often catch species that are active when we’re not there.”

Pollinator Fields For Biodiversity

While certain crops, like cotton and corn, are self-pollinating, numerous additional benefits — such as increasing the weight of cotton bolls — can still be seen by incorporating pollinator fields.

The Muzzis said the greatest benefit they see is undoubtedly the proliferation of beneficial pollinator species.

Katherine Parys, USDA entomologist, sweeping the pollinator habitat field on TKT Farms.

“The beneficials are thriving … the diversity of pollinators is really mind-blowing,” Doreen said.

“We didn’t truly understand how beneficial pollinator fields could be until we began to see Katherine’s findings,” Michael said as he spoke on how impressed he is with USDA coming out to their field and finding pollinators native to other areas like California and not commonly found in the Delta.

He emphasized the bad rap farmers tend to get regarding the environment. “This is our way of showing people that as farmers, we care as much or more about the environment as they do.”

Parys reiterated the added benefit of biodiversity farms obtain with a planted pollinator field.

“Planted areas like the one on TKT Farms often provide more benefit than people would generally assume, as they not only provide season-long floral and nectar resources but also substantial nesting habitat — as the majority of native bees are ground nesting,” she said.

Pollinator Fields For The Future

Parys suggested this work is significant and beneficial both now and for the future.

“Long term, this is important and powerful work, compiling general baseline information about what bees here in the Mississippi Delta are visiting what plants and when. This dataset is a great source of both conservation and on-farm information,” she said.

Huggins said everyone from farmers and industry people to beekeepers visit the demonstration sites (pollinator fields). He noted the opportunity this brings to educate individuals and groups on the benefits of implementing pollinator habitat fields.

“Showing them you can take a spot near a production agriculture field and with a little bit of management, it can become a biodiverse habitat … instead of mowing it every other week, you can make a positive out of it,” he said.

Huggins conveyed there is financial assistance through such programs as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) through NRCS for those interested in adding pollinator fields to their operation.

Contact your state wildlife biologist to get started.

“Production and conservation efforts don’t have to be exclusive to each other,” he said. “You can have both agriculture and a pollinator site. They can coexist.”

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