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?
“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
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.”
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
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
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 Plan
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 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
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
“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.”
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).
“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.
“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.”