Organic Farming & Pollinators: Assessing Pollinators on Your Organic Farm
Wobbly Cart Farm, Rochester, WA
May 18, 2015
Over forty farmers and community members gathered near Rochester at Wobbly Cart Farm to learn about assessing pollinators in an organic farming system from the WSU Native Pollinator Project. Wobbly Cart Farm is a certified organic vegetable farm, owned and operated by Asha McElfresh and Joseph Gabiou. The farm is in its 11th year of production, and in the midst of its 2nd year working with the WSU Native Pollinator Project. Elias Bloom and Rachel Olsson (both graduate students from WSU) along with Bob Redmond of The Common Acre, presented a wonderful farm walk on identifying, assessing, and managing native pollinators.
Wobbly Cart operates on two sites, and the walk started at their main site where they have their packing shed. Asha introduced everyone to the farm speaking briefly about the basic structure of their farm partnership, their organic production methods, and their markets including a robust CSA program. From there, Eli took over and spoke to everyone about the importance of native pollinators and the many possible reasons for pollinator decline. He stressed the importance of farmers monitoring pollinators on their farm. The farmecosystem is extremely complex but taking time to assess native pollinators within its context can tell a farmer plenty about their ecosystem’s overall health. Further, it is of high economic importance for farmers to be aware of pollinators, which provide the service of pollinating their crops – many of which cannot be pollinated by imported honey bee colonies (which in many cases are simply not as effective as native pollinators). Eli spoke about how the use of non-native bees and the importation of bees to pollinate crops can be detrimental to native populations. Imported colonies often bring with them disease that spread to native pollinators, weakening the local ecosystem.
After Eli’s introduction to the day, we relocated to Wobbly Cart’s second site, a property owned by Joseph. Attendees split into three groups and rotated through three field stations. The first field station was learning how to identify different pollinators. Rachel let this station explaining to everyone the different morphological features of the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, bugs, and beetles that may provide pollinator services in the field. She shared plenty of specimens that attendees were able to look at under microscopes and hand-lenses. It was fascinating to see all the different sizes, shapes, and colors of pollinators.
The second station was ledby Bob, who explainedthe different techniques for catching and trapping pollinators in order to observe them and determine approximate numbers. They ranged from low-tech (watching a defined floral area for pollinator visitors) to setting up colored traps filled with soap and water to attract and (unfortunately) kill visiting pollinators. Bob also explained the different methods of preserving captured pollinators in order to identify them using the basic characteristics explained at Rachel’s station. These methods are being used within the native pollinator project to sample various farm sites and develop a baseline of population numbers for pollinators. Bob also spoke about the work his non-profit, The Common Acre, is doing to preserve and create pollinator habitat, and most importantly, educate the public on the significance of pollinators.
The third and final station was with Eli, who led an active observation of pollinators in Wobbly Cart’s strawberry fields. It was the perfect day to observe pollinators as Eli explained that sunny, warm (above 70 degrees) with a wind less than 5 mph is ideal conditions for pollinator activity. He reiterated the need for farmers to spend time observing their fields to determine the types and level of activity of pollinators. Part of determining a lack of pollinators and/or change in pollinator activity on the farm is creating baseline observations. Eli recommended observing the same spot (one that has active blooming flowers) every week and recording the number and types of pollinators. Attendees were allowed to practice this by sitting in Wobbly Cart’s strawberry field. It was not only educational to watch pollinators, but it was meditative. A field certainly looks different when one takes time to observe its activity rather than being the one forcing the activity e.g. planting, weeding, harvesting.
At the end of the farm walk, everyone gathered for a final discussion regarding the information shared. Overall, farmers are encouraged to be observant in their fields, plant successions of flowering plants to give pollinators food throughout the season, and be aware of practices that may harm their populations. Eli challenged all attendees to tell at least one person about what they had experienced on the farm walk. Spreading the word about pollinator services within our agricultural and other ecosystems is as needed as monitoring and assessing the health of these amazing organisms. So if you’re reading this, spread the word! Advocate for organic farming, the planting of pollinator habitats, and the continued research and education around assessing and managing native pollinator health.
Summary by Angela Anegon.
This Farm Walk is supported in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov.