Farmers Can Profit By Setting Aside Marginal Lands As Habitat

Food & Drink

Farmers may lose money when they fill a field with crops from edge to edge, an expert said Friday, while they could profit from identifying and restoring unprofitable areas within fields.

“There can be small areas within a field that are less profitable,” said Claire Kremen, a University of British Columbia ecologist and applied conservation biologist.

“I’m not talking about identifying big landscapes that are marginal. I’m talking about within a farmer’s field or right around the borders of a farmer’s field—if it works out that way—lands that are less productive. Let’s find those lands, because if you take those lands out of production, then it’s less of a hit to the farmer, and it might actually make their farm more profitable.”

Global positioning is one technology that enables this kind of precision agriculture, Kremen said. GPS can tell farmers exactly where they are in a field while the harvester records the yield, making it possible to identify specific areas of low productivity. By restoring habitat in those unproductive areas, farmers can reduce costs in labor, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and fuel, Kremen said, while simultaneously improving pollination, pest control, disease control, water quality, soil health, erosion control, and carbon storage.

Kremen highlighted a UK study led by Richard Pywell from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. In that study, farmers planted corners and edges of fields with pollinator and bird habitat. They removed as much as 8 percent of the land from production, but they found that production increased just as much on the remaining crop land, in part because of improved pollination.

“Across all crops, actually, the production was significantly enhanced on the fields with the plantings,” Kremen said in a talk Friday hosted by the University of Chicago. “And collectively they enhanced production enough such that there was no difference in total production, despite removing up to 8 percent of land from production. And there was also no significant difference in profits among the treatments.”

There are efforts underway to get more farmers to try this form of habitat restoration, Kremen said, but many farmers need help with upfront costs and access to technology.

“If you can help farmers do this profit mapping, essentially, on their farm, they can see ‘Wow, I’m losing money on this bit of my field, it wouldn’t be so bad to put this into habitat,’” said Kremen.

Kremen considers this an “exciting” step toward more extensive efforts needed to render agriculture less hostile to biodiversity and the climate. Agriculture is responsible for deforestation, for some of the most damaging greenhouse gases, for nutrient and sediment pollution, toxins from pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

“It’s only part of the problem,” she said of agriculture, “but it’s a big part of the problem.”

Yet, it doesn’t have to be, she added. Farms and managed forests can produce products for humans while simultaneously protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Farmers can achieve these benefits through mixed plantings, longer and more varied crop rotations, hedgerows, buffer strips, riparian corridors, woodlots, meadows, natural-area irrigation.

“Deforestation is the easiest no-brainer way—just expand instead of trying to use the lands that we’ve already got,” she said. “The problem is, so many lands get abandoned, agricultural lands, and that’s something that really doesn’t get factored in when people try to compare these agricultural systems.

“They will say, we can’t not do conventional agriculture because we have to feed the world. And that’s because conventional agriculture—when you’re dumping all these chemicals in—is pretty productive, and it produces a lot of food. But we’re forgetting that at a certain point it (the land) gets exhausted, and it can’t be used at all and is abandoned. So that part of our land isn’t feeding the world anymore. So we should also be taking into account that some of these lands are just getting sort of extracted away. Then people go and cut down some more forest. Those are the kinds of things we want to prevent.”

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