Meadows with a Mission

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Young monarch caterpillars munch on milkweed, while mature butterflies flit from flower to flower. A pair of bobwhite quail amble into the protective underbrush at the field’s edge. Bees, beetles, dragonflies and moths dart and dance across the gold-toned meadow.

This late-summer landscape is teeming with life, which is exactly what the landowner, Adam Jones, wants to see.

“If you plant something that’s good for pollinators, you’re going to create seed and structure that’s good for wildlife, too,” said Adam, natural resource conservation specialist for MFA Incorporated who also farms with his family in Maywood, Mo. “Diversity is the main thing. That’s what animals and insects are looking for. They like tall stuff, short stuff and plants that bloom at different times of the year.”

Planting such plots has been a popular—and important—conservation practice in recent years as numbers of key pollinators dwindle to frightening lows, mainly due to habitat loss. More than 150 food crops in the United States, including almost all fruit and grain, depend on pollinators, according to the USDA, which estimates the value of these crops at $10 billion per year. Yet numerous species of important pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bats and native bees are suffering from declining populations.

To turn around this decline, government and industry are banking heavily on the efforts of farmers, local communities and citizens to adopt more pollinator-friendly practices. Mul­tiple cost-share programs and initiatives exist to create more conducive habitat that includes perennial wildflowers, forbs and native grasses, particularly on agricultural land. Pollinator plots are a good fit for farmers, Jones said, because they can be established without sacrificing production of cash crops.

“Pollinator plots are perfect way to make better use of margin­al land,” he explained. “They’re well suited for low-yield fields and areas that don’t make economic sense to farm. The seed mixes are all native plants that can thrive in places where crops would struggle.”

Jones established his farm’s pollinator plot four years ago on 17 acres of unproductive sandy soil adjacent to the Fabi­us River. He enrolled the acreage in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program CP42 Pollina­tor Habitat practice, which provides a per-acre signing incentive, annual rental payments and cost-share funds for establishment and maintenance.

“When I was a kid, we always called this the sand field,” Jones said. “Over in the corner, it looks like the kind of sand you’d play in with your Tonka trucks. We were lucky to raise half a crop here every year. Pollinator habitat is a much better way to use this land. When you look at CRP acres and where we ought to be putting them, it’s places like this.”

If landowners don’t have an entire field to devote to pollinator habitat, the field margins, fencerows and buffer strips are also perfect for this type of planting, he added.

“Honestly, they do good no matter where you put them,” Jones said. “And when it comes to pollinator plots, I don’t know that size matters. It’s going to get used if it’s half an acre; it’s going to get used if it’s 20 acres.”

Along with adding value to otherwise unproductive areas, pollinator plots provide a multitude of other benefits, Jones pointed out. They enhance the farm’s overall biodiversity while helping to protect water quality and prevent soil erosion. They are low-maintenance land management options that also hap­pen to be aesthetically pleasing.

“Who doesn’t like a field full of pretty flowers?” Jones asked.

Pollinators on display

Last winter, demonstration pollinator plots were installed at MFA Agri Services locations in California, Kirksville, and Mexico, Mo. The mix included 50 different species of native flowers and forbs that started growing this past spring and sum­mer, but Jones said it will likely be the summer of 2022 before they are fully blooming. As the plots mature, they will help educate farmers, landowners and the general public about the process of planting similar plots and the benefits they offer.

“There were a lot of reasons for putting in these plots,” Jones said. “On a practical note, we were spending money and time to mow these areas of the proper­ty when they could be used for pollinator habitat. So it was not only a good thing to do, but it’s also a cost and labor reduction. Plus, once it gets really established with flowers that look nice, people will start asking questions about what’s out there and maybe want to put in their own pollinator plots.”

Similarly, in December 2018, MFA worked with the Paris High School FFA chapter to sow a half-acre pollinator plot on the school grounds. The plantings have now grown into a thriving habitat with more than 30 different varieties of native, blooming plants. It’s not only been a teaching tool for students but also an attraction for the community, said Josh Bondy, the school’s ag teacher and FFA advisor.

“We’ve done plant identification with some of the classes, and next week, my freshmen are going to do a unit on bugs, so we’re going to come out and collect insects from the plot to study,” Bondy said. “We do nature walks out here from time to time, and last year, a kindergarten class raised monarch butter­flies and released them here. I know some people in town have also used it to take pictures. It’s been a good addition to our school and ag program.”

Paris agricultural students are actively involved in the plot’s management, collecting data and helping with maintenance practices. For example, some of the students helped conduct a prescribed burn of the plot last fall with assistance from Mis­souri Department of Conservation Private Lands Conservation­ist James Ebbesmeyer.

“It was a good experience because we got to learn how to control the fire,” said Owen Totten, an 11th-grader and FFA member. “We had two guys on one side of the fire and three guys on the other side. We were burning it down toward each other, until we met up in the middle, and the fire died out.”

Give plots a shot

Prescribed fire is one of very few management practices needed once the plot is established, Jones said. Controlled burns are recommended every three to four years to clear out unwanted veg­etation and allow native plants to regenerate.

“Pollinator habitat requires very little care,” he said. “Once you establish it and know what you’re doing, it’s mostly hands off. Mowing and burning, that’s about it, just to reset succession and keep the trees out of it. These are all perennial species that come back every year. There’s just not much else you have to do.”

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all pollinator plot, Jones said. The “best” seed mix and establishment methods will depend on the targeted pollinator species, soil type, drainage, size, budget and other factors. However, there are some recommended practices to help ensure success.

“The more diverse the seed mix, the better, but the more diverse, the more expensive,” Jones said. “My plot has about 15 species total, and it looks pretty good. Purists will tell you that if you’re going to do good pollinator work, you need these insanely diverse mixes that have 30, 40, 50 species in them. That’s fine, but then you start get­ting into the range of $400 to $600 dollars an acre, and there’s not much appetite for that. If you keep it to fairly common, commercially grown seeds, you can keep the cost of the seed down.”

For those who are establishing pollinator plots from scratch, fall is the ideal time to start, Jones said, emphasizing that proper site preparation is crucial. Eliminating competition from weeds and other undesirable plants is key to the success of pollinator habitat. The site also needs to prepped so that seed can make direct contact with the soil.

“The No. 1, easiest way to establish something like this is planting into soybean stubble,” Jones said. “Most of the weed competition is already gone. You can scatter seed, and it’ll hit bare soil. You can plant into corn stubble, too, but with soybeans you don’t have as much residue out there.”

Planting into a grassy area, such as a yard, pasture or hay field, is also entirely feasible, Jones said, although it takes a little more work on the front end to get rid of existing vegetation. Fall is also the best time to tackle that task.

“That’s when cool-season grasses are very susceptible to herbicides because they’re trying to store nutrients into the root system for next spring,” he said. “You want to use a broad-spectrum product like glyphosate but nothing with soil residuals that could impact germi­nation of your pollinator seed. You may have to burn down multiple times to take care of the competition. That’s very important in the es­tablishment year because the young, native species can pretty easily get shaded out by more robust plants.”

Cold is cool

After the site is prepared, growers should plan to sow their pollinator plot over the winter, ideally December, January or February, Jones said. Seed mixes are available through any MFA location, along with site preparation products and tools. Broadcasting is the typical meth­od, but the seed can also be drilled. Planting during colder months allows the seeds to go through the natural freeze-thaw process these native cultivars need for establishment.

“A lot of these seeds need to be what we call ‘stratified’ before they’re activated,” Jones explained. “They need that whole seasonal cycle to recognize that the next time it warms up, it’s time to grow. That’s what they’re used to in nature. If you wait and throw the seed mix out there later in the spring, you’ll likely have a lot of species that will not germinate.”

Plus, he added, the freeze-thaw cycle helps work the seed into the proper soil depth for spring germination.

“Seeding on snow is good, too, because you can see where the seed lands,” Jones continued. “And frozen ground allows you to traverse it easily without mudding it all up.”

Although the CP42 practice he used on his farm is one of the most well-known government programs for this type of conservation effort, many other USDA offerings and public-private initiatives exist to help growers install and maintain pollinator plots. Funding and assistance are available through the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Departments of Natural Resources and even groups such as Quail Forever and the National Wild Tur­key Federation—just to name a few. MFA Incorporated is also active in Missourians for Monarchs, a collaborative of conservation and agricultural organizations, government agencies, utilities, agribusinesses and citizens committed to monarch and pollinator conservation. Jones, who serves on the collaborative’s steering committee, says MFA terri­tory falls in the epicenter of the monarch’s breeding and migratory path from Mexico to Canada.

Jones advises farmers or landowners to reach out to their local USDA offices to find out what program would best fit their situation.

While such assistance is welcomed, Jones added, he said his motivation to implement more pollinator-friendly practices goes well beyond any monetary incentives.

“I truly enjoy seeing the blooming plants and all the wildlife and insects that are out there because of this plot,” he said. “It makes me almost as proud as growing a decent crop. It’s all about wanting to do better, not just for nature but also for the legacy of your farm.”