Farmers can profit by setting aside marginal land as habitat

Farmers can lose money when filling a field with crops from edge to edge, an expert said on Friday, while they could benefit from identifying and restoring unprofitable areas in the fields.

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

“I’m not talking about identifying large landscapes that are marginal. I’m talking about land within a farmer’s field or around a farmer’s field—if that’s the case—land that’s less productive. Let’s find that land, because if you take that land out of production, the farmer will be less affected and it might actually make their farm more profitable.

Global positioning is one technology that enables this kind of precision farming, Kremen said. GPS can tell farmers exactly where they are in a field while the harvester records yield, helping identify specific areas of low productivity. By restoring habitat in these unproductive areas, farmers can reduce labor, seed, fertilizer, pesticide and fuel costs, 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 of the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology. In this study, farmers planted corners and edges of fields with habitat for pollinators and birds. They removed up to 8% of the land from production, but found that production increased just as much on the remaining cropland, in part due to improved pollination.

“Across all crops, in fact, production has been dramatically improved in the fields with the plantations,” Kremen said in a to speak Friday hosted by the University of Chicago. “And collectively they have improved production enough that there is no difference in total production, despite taking up to 8% of the land out of production. And there was no significant difference in benefits between the treatments either.

Efforts are 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, basically, on their farm, they can see ‘Wow, I’m losing money on this part of my field, wouldn’t it be so bad to put that in the ‘habitat'” says Kremen.

Kremen sees it as an “exciting” step towards greater efforts needed to make agriculture less biodiversity- and climate-unfriendly. Agriculture is responsible for deforestation, some of the most harmful greenhouse gases, nutrient and sediment pollution, toxins from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

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

Yet it is not necessary, she added. Farms and managed forests can produce products for humans while 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, grasslands, irrigation of natural areas.

“Deforestation is the best and easiest way – just expand instead of trying to use the land we already have,” she said. “The problem is that so much land is abandoned, farmland, and that’s something that really doesn’t get taken into account when people try to compare these farming systems.

“They’ll say, we can’t do not doing conventional farming because we have to feed the world. And that’s because conventional agriculture – when you dump all these chemicals into it – is quite productive and produces a lot of food. But we forget that at some point it (the earth) runs out, and it can no longer be used at all and is abandoned. So this part of our land no longer feeds the world. So we should also take into account that some of these lands are being extracted in a way. Then people will cut down even more forest. This is the kind of thing we want to prevent. »

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