The Wild Farm Alliance
Reconnecting food systems with ecosystems.

By Dan Sullivan


photo courtesy of Dan Imhoff

What’s a Wild Farmer to Do?

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?

Protect pollinators. “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.

Plant hedgerows. “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.

Support riparian 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.”

Resources

Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmers Guide and Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Certifiers Guide (Wild Farm Alliance, 2005). To request a hardcopy of either guide, contact the Wild Farm Alliance at:
info@wildfarmalliance.org.

Federal Organic System Plan Template biodiversity conservation measures

Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature

Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches (Sierra Club Books, 2003).

Wild Farm Alliance Food Pyramid is a take-off of the USDA meat-and-potatoes model. This version makes a compelling case that our food is intimately connected with nature, and that our food choices can support stewardship farming.

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.


photo courtesy of Sam Earnshaw

“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 conservation.

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:

Part A 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.

Part B 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.

Part C outlines the biodiversity amendments to the Organic System Plan template.

Part D outlines ways to monitor, plan and prioritize on-farm biodiversity.

Part E 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 Baumgartner.

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 done it.”

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.”

Partners in protection
A 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 (Montana). www.lambandwool.com
“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 age.


photo courtesy of William Campbell

“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 fields.

“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.”