What’s a Wild Farmer to
One of the biggest concepts to get your brain
around when considering biodiversity, says Jo
Ann Baumgartner of the Wild Farm Alliance, is
that an ecosystem doesn’t end at your property
line. Here are some steps you can take to make
sure your farm remains a healthy and vibrant part
of that system.
Establish and maintain
wildlife corridors. “Think
about how your farm fits into the larger landscape,
how wildlife is moving through it and how water
is moving through it,” says Baumgartner.
Where do population groups of animals congregate
in relation to your property? Where’s their
water source? If your farm is in between the two,
does your landscape take its role as a critical
wildlife corridor into account?
“Native pollinators need habitat: nectar,
pollen, a place to nest,” says Baumgartner.
“And they are very important to crops.”
Up to 30 percent of the food that grows on farms
is pollinated, she says, adding that pollinators
such as native solitary bees and bumblebees living
wild in the landscape around farms have been shown
to increase yields of sunflowers, watermelon,
blueberries, cranberries and other crops. “In
some cases, these native insects pollinate the
flowers directly, sometimes providing all the
pollination needed by a grower,” Baumgartner
says. “In other cases, native bees cause
honeybees to move more erratically between crop
rows, improving the ability of honeybees to cross-pollinate
flowers. If you want those services from pollinators,
you need to really help support them.” This
can be done by planting nectar and pollen producing
flowers and by leaving dry stands and dead trees
for habitat. “Both honeybees and native
bees are severely affected by pesticides and also
the intensity of the farm. If you are more diverse
and closer to wild areas, you’re going to
have more native pollinators.” Beneficial
predator species also need hospitable—or
beneficial—habitat, Baumgartner says.
“Native-plant hedgerows evolve with pollinators
and predators,” says Baumgartner. Once established
in California’s Mediterranean climate—a
few years max, she said—there’s no
need for irrigation.
communities. Encourage filtering
vegetation bordering creeks and streams, says
Baumgartner. “This buffering vegetation
decreases the load of sediment and fertilizers
that could come off the farm,” she says.
“Riparian areas trap eroding soil and help
break down nutrients. They have the unique ability
to do that because of the diverse microflora in
the wet and dry soil zones and the high organic
matter that helps to capture pollutants.”
November 9, 2006: To the uninitiated, the words
“wild” and “farm” don’t seem to
have much in common, one conjuring up snarling tigers and slithering
snakes in the jungle, the other neat rows of corn and soybeans
stretched across the landscape as far as the eye can see.
But to those who know a healthy farm reflects a diverse ecosystem
as complex as any rainforest, the marriage of these two words
makes perfect sense.
The nonprofit Wild Farm Alliance came into being at the start
of the new millennium, when the Foundation for Deep Ecology
held a meeting to bring together advocates for conservation
and sustainable agriculture. The group includes two full-time
program staff and a part-time administrative staff with offices
in Watsonville, California, and a 12-member board made up
of directors of several other nonprofits, a small foundation,
leaders of three conservation groups, a wildlife consultant
and a predator-friendly farmer.
A bare bones outfit with an annual operating budget of about
$120,000, the Wild Farm Alliance has nevertheless done big
things particularly, as of late, with regard to helping to
preserve the integrity of organic agriculture.
While organic farming, done right, “is a great model
for farmers,” says Wild Farm Alliance Director Jo Ann
Baumgartner, you don’t have to be organic to accommodate
nature on a farm.
“We support healthy, viable agriculture that protects
and restores wild nature,” Baumgartner explains. Farms
can and should support a whole range of ecological processes
and native species, she says. By taking an inclusive approach,
being willing to meet farmers where they are, and educating
them about the symbiotic aspects of nurturing biodiversity,
the Wild Farm Alliance has been able to affect positive change
across the country and internationally.
The group began to shape organic agriculture when the Independent
Organic Inspectors Association, which trains about half the
organic inspectors in the country, alerted the Wild Farm Alliance
that the federal Organic Rule required farmers to nurture
biodiversity as part their Organic Systems Plan.
“We first sent them a few of our briefing papers, then
we realized that wasn’t enough,” says Baumgartner.
So, with funding from the Organic Farming Research Foundation
and a collaborative effort that included organic farmers,
conservationists, educators, government ag officials, organic
and community food advocacy organizations, scientists and,
of course, consultants, the Wild Farm Alliance set about redrafting
the Organic System Plan template—which had been created
by ATTRA (Sustainable Agriculture information Service) for
the USDA—to include specific steps toward biodiversity
Two 29-page publications—“Biodiversity Conservation:
An Organic Farmers Guide” and “Biodiversity Conservation:
An Organic Certifiers Guide”—complement that effort.
“The [Organic System Plan] questions are in the guides
and the guides reflect those questions, so that each one of
the questions has a page that outlines in further detail what
are some of the highest conservation practices or actions
a farmer could take,” Baumgartner explains. “It
also identifies things farmers could do that would be inconsistent
with the rule.”
The guides are broken up into five alphabetized parts:
helps the farmer or certifier understand core principles of
biodiversity and to see the farm and surrounding landscape—from
watersheds to wildlife corridors—in a holistic context
and to recognize how the farmer’s actions affect all
that surrounds them.
addresses specific situations and practices growers can use
to maintain or increase whole-farm biodiversity and to determine
which practices are in sync with the federal Organic Rule.
outlines the biodiversity amendments to the Organic System
outlines ways to monitor, plan and prioritize on-farm biodiversity.
covers the benefits and incentives for taking these measures.
“While we were working on that guide and working with
the NOSB [National Organic Standards Board], we went and tested
these questions on a couple of dozen farms in California and
New Mexico, got feedback and incorporated them,” explains
The Wild Farm Alliance then mailed out the new version of
the Organic System Plan template to all organic certifiers
registered with the USDA. The document is also available on
the Wild Farm Alliance website www.wildfarmalliance.org,
where PDF versions of the guides for farmers and certifiers
can also be downloaded. Hardcopies of the farmer guide were
mailed to 8,600 organic farmers this winter.
Of about 20 certifiers followed up with by phone, Baumgartner
says, 12 have adopted or plan to adopt the new biodiversity
guidelines, another five “seem really interested but
aren’t sure how they are going to address them,”
and few remain on the fence.
“These guys can be pretty competitive, and they want
to see what other certifiers are going to do,” she says.
“So we’re out there telling ‘em who’s
In a world where “greenwashing” is the new black,
words like “sustainability” get tossed around
like so many fast-food french-fries, and even the term “organic”
has come under intense scrutiny, maintaining a sense of integrity
in our food system—and the words and processes we use
to describe it—has become an ever slipperier slope.
“A lot of [organic] certifiers aren’t familiar
with biodiversity, other than that it means different types
of livestock and plants,” says Baumgartner. “It
means much more than that and includes all forms of life,
from bacteria and fungi to trees and grasses and a whole range
of natural processes.”
CSA farmer, a predator-friendly ranch, and a wildlife
corridor protection project each demonstrate critical
aspects of “farming with the wild.”
High Ground Organic Farm (California).
Organic farmer Steven Pedersen is all about partnership.
Through one partnership, Pederson’s High
Ground Organics and nearby Mariquita Farm jointly
provide produce to a CSA. Through another, this
time with the nonprofit Open Space Alliance (OSA),
Pederson was able to secure reasonable terms to
purchase his farm, prime real estate that lies
between the Pacific Ocean and Silicon Valley.
OSA and the California Coastal Conservancy purchased
the farm for its agricultural value and because
it abuts a sensitive wetland. A conservation easement
on the farm stipulates it must be farmed organically.
Pedersen, who’d been organic farming on
leased land, was happy to oblige. He’s installed
native hedgerows (to attract predatory and parasitic
wasps and native pollinators), restored an eroding
gully with native willows and planted native grasses
(to filter water leaving his own property).
Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company
“Predator friendly” might not be the
first thing you’d think of to describe a
sheep farmer, but that just what sheep and cattle
ranchers Becky Weed and Dave Tyler call their
operation. Their grass-finishing techniques give
their meat its special flavor and means their
animals are raised on pasture their whole lives.
Cover crops, rotational grazing and selecting
for hardy stock take the place of pesticides,
herbicides and parasiticides. These ranchers see
themselves as part of a larger ecosystem that
includes predators like bears, coyotes, eagles,
mountain lions and these animals’ favorite
food sources: deer, gopher, mice and rabbits.
One strategy for keeping these natural predators
away from the sheep is using guard llamas, which
are allowed to bond with the sheep at an early
“I’ve come to view predator management
like other forms of integrated pest management;
there is no single cure-all that fits all situations,”
says Becky Weed. Exterminating all pests is neither
possible nor desirable, she says. “There’s
a whole range of small things that we do to try
to keep the carnivores at bay.” These range
from using a powerful flashlight during walks
at odd hours, strategic pasture movement at vulnerable
times of the year (like spring lambing season
and when coyotes typically train their pups for
hunting in the fall), urinating in the back corners
of fields, a rare gunshot over the head of an
interloper, placing mothballs at a fox den entrance,
and simply moving the flock quickly if a particularly
difficult predator—such as a mountain lion—shows
up. “We don’t have guard dogs, but
we should,” says Weed. “Probably the
best overall plan is to be adaptable and unpredictable;
from there the quirks of each landscape, each
season and each predator have to be our guide.”
Split Rock Wildway (New York).
Nearly 7,000 acres have been protected—primarily
through state or private land acquisition—in
this wildlife-movement corridor linking Lake Champlain
and its valley with the Adirondack Mountains to
the west. Split Rock Wildway encompasses many
farms, including the 200-acre, organically managed
Black Kettle Wildfarm—a project of the nonprofit
Eddy Foundation—where some fields have been
allowed to return to wild forest. Interspersed
throughout, a patchwork of diverse crops feed
CSA members, retreat participants, and support
a host of other species, including grassland birds,
native pollinators, raptures and small mammals.
One strategy for a seamless interface with nature
is the creation of wide hedgerows—or “hedgethickets”
—of native early succession and fruit-bearing
tree and shrub species that crisscross the agricultural
“It’s the idea of having a farm that’s
really sensitive to nature, not just agriculture,”
says Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, co-director of
the Metta Earth Institute (www.mettaearth.org),
which is collaborating with the Eddy Foundation
to explore how people might best fit into the
wild farming equation. “We have an idea
percolating that connects community land trusts
with CSAs or community supported agriculture.”
The vision, she says, takes CSA to a new level
and includes clusters of homes around reinvigorated
farms, where inhabitants have their hands in—and
are sustained by—the soil. “The question
is, can we really expand the concept and begin
to create a model where we can actually live in
a better relationship with nature? That’s
what contemplative ecology is all about: getting
a bit more quiet and a little more present to
see if there are ways that we can actually enhance
the Wildway with our presence.”