Monday, November 2, 2009

Eco-label Promotes Biodiversity on Farms

At first glance, potato farms might seem like an unlikely candidate for conservation efforts.

But Wisconsin researchers are demonstrating that biodiversity can be restored even in the midst of large-scale farming.

Paul Zedler, professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison, and his colleagues are working with potato farmers to restore pre-settlement habitats on growers’ lands.

In central Wisconsin, 42,600 acres are devoted to potatoes. Since the landscape is dominated by agriculture, some proportion of farmland must be set aside for conservation to preserve biodiversity in this part of the state.

Restoration is a requirement of the Wisconsin Healthy Grown potato program, a partnership between UW–Madison, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers’ Association, and NGOs such as the International Crane Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the World Wildlife Fund.

The groundwork for the Healthy Grown program was laid out in the 1980s, when a group of potato growers voluntarily discontinued use of the high-risk pesticide aldicarb. The farmers turned to UW-Madison researchers for pest-management advice. This grassroots movement eventually drew attention from conservation agencies.

To be certified under the Healthy Grown eco-label, potatoes must be grown under a set of standards that restrict pesticide and fertilizer use. The program was able to draw from an extensive body of UW-Madison research to guide the formulation of these in-field standards. But farmers and environmentalists were interested in doing more.

Since the program's conception, growers had expressed interest in managing their farms as whole ecosystems rather than just focusing on crop production on a field by field basis. At the same time, the NGOs saw the program as an opportunity to bring farmland into regional-scale conservation plans.

Satisfying this interest in developing a conservation standard for the eco-label was challenging for researchers because fewer precedents existed. Even the largest and most well-known eco-label, USDA Organic, does not include a conservation requirement in its certification standards.

Zedler and his colleagues looked to the Nature Conservancy, which had established a system for making strategic conservation decisions and measuring conservation success at sites where the objective is to improve biodiversity on whatever land can be spared from intensive human use.

Potato farms in central Wisconsin are unusual in their tendency to contain significant patches of marginal land without crops because these patches cannot be irrigated – a necessary factor in growing potatoes. The result is a complex mosaic of land in which remnant patches of disturbed natural habitat are isolated within an agricultural matrix. Zedler and his colleagues focused their research efforts on these patches of non-crop land.

Their research suggests that prescribed burns and control of invasive plant species can help restore disturbed non-crop land to the habitats that characterized central Wisconsin before European settlement: prairie, oak-pine savannah, and sedge meadow.

Thus far, the Healthy Grown program has restored more than 400 acres of privately owned farmland. According to Zedler and his colleagues, farmers’ strong ties to their land motivate their commitment to the conservation standard of the Healthy Grown eco-label.

Zedler, P. H., T. Anchor, D. Knuteson, C. Gratton, and J. Barzen. 2009. Using an ecolabel to promote on-farm conservation: the Wisconsin Healthy Grown experience. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 7(1): 61-74. DOI:10.3763/ijas.2009.0394

(Image courtesy of FotoosVanRobin at flickr under a Creative Commons license)

1 comment:

Roy said...

Paying attention to marginal land can be a very productive way of maintaining or increasing biodiversity in farmland. Travelling around England, where I come from those areas that have maintained hedgerows, for example, achieve a much higher degree of biodiversity than the plains of East Anglia where vast fields, by English standards, provide little opportunity for biodiversity but more opportunity for soil erosion. Also, as a bird lover I prefer the farmland with ancient hedgerows to the monotonous farms.