Written by Tuesday, December 06, 2016 at 2:15 PMon
This is a most revealing time of year to drive through agricultural country. While high summer is a vast sea of green, at this time of year the golds, tans, browns and occasional greens tell us not only what crop grew last season but a little about how some one manages their soil.
Broadly, the more residue left on the field, the less vulnerable it is to soil erosion. The residue can be a thick, chunky yellow carpet of corn stalks and leaves left by the combine- that’s about the brightest hue on the hills. If the 2016 crop was soy, the residue is generally a washed-out gray, and there’s a lot less of it than corn. Some farmers will bale most of the stalks and leaves of corn after harvesting grain, leaving only the rows of short stalks on the field. Some will plow the residue in, leaving a smattering of yellow flecks through the choppy dark earth, and sometimes farmers strip-till, leaving long, dark stripes where corn or soy will be planted next spring.
I cringe a little when I see fields plowed up in the fall, because the plowing speeds up decomposition of that residue by exposing it to air and microbes. That usually means less soil organic matter. But there’s plenty of good reason to fall plow: slow decomposition of residue may tie up nutrients that next year’s corn could use, manure may need to be incorporated, and the soil will warm more quickly in the spring, so that it’s dry enough to plant corn or soy nice and early and the seeds germinate comfortably in a warm seedbed. If the spring is wet (common enough), it can be hard to find a dry window to plow and a second window to plant. Maybe putting off plowing until a wet spring would actually lead to more soil compaction because of all those tractor passes on wet soil, which is more vulnerable to compaction. Or maybe farmers are susceptible to that deep open feeling that a field of moist dark turned-over soil gives us: there’s so much potential there. When I see the deep black squares on the landscape, my scientist brain winces but I also feel the satisfaction of pioneer settlers settling happily in for the winter.
Green is about the last color you see on the Wisconsin agricultural landscape this time of year, but it’s my favorite. There’s the yellowy green of grazed pastures or hayfields going dormant, the rich green of an alfalfa stand that’s had a long time to regrow this warm fall, and the fresh bright green of cover crops in long tiny rows against black earth. These green spots are contributing living plant residue to that soil organic matter, stimulating microbial growth and cycling nutrients. The perennial pastures and hayfields are almost never vulnerable to erosion or compaction, because living roots sustain soil structure.
I like to imagine the decisions behind the patchwork quilt of dull colors on the hillsides. Did that area get a cover crop because corn was harvested earlier there, so the farmer had time? Or because it’s more productive and so the farmer could afford cover crop seed? How old is that alfalfa stand and how many more years will it be around? Why plow that side of the road and not this side? Besides the view, the outcomes of these personal decisions made on private land have an effect on public goods like water quality and long-term sustainability of our soil resource. We all get to see the final decisions spread out along the highways, but the dynamics of each one are hidden, and probably as various as the tawny colors themselves.
Written by Tuesday, December 06, 2016 at 2:15 PMon
Scientists look through microscopes. This is certainly something I believed before I took any science classes. I thought they must peer at cell structures and tiny organisms and minerals for a portion of every day, say at least 25%. I was relieved to learn you can do a lot of science without even a magnifying glass, especially in agriculture where a lot of what we’re interested in- plants, water, people, eating- is definitely visible to the naked eye. I had always found it difficult to focus through microscopes, and had a hard time picking out cell structures in high school biology.
However, recently I’ve gotten involved with counting tiny organisms less than 1 mm long. I’m trying to figure out what kinds of critters are part of the food web based on decomposing plant litter. Microbes live by breaking down plant litter, and other organisms, like mites and collembola, eat the microbes. In order to get a picture of who’s involved in decomposition, we are characterizing the microbial community and also the mites and collembola.
So last fall I found myself nervously sitting down at an actual microscope. I had to twiddle all the knobs a few times to figure out where to turn the light up and how to focus in and out. How will I ever distinguish little blobby mites, which look like ticks, from blobby soil aggregates, I worried? Don’t collembola pretty much look like shards of leaves? I got some training from an undergrad employee in Claudio Gratton’s lab, who I have seen spend days on end in front of these microscopes identifying insects, arthropods and organisms of all sorts. She pointed out a few examples. I looked through the scope behind her and was thrilled to see yes, there was the characteristic “springtail” of a collembolan, tucked underneath the segmented body. And there were the tear-shaped bodies of mites with little legs.
She left me on my own to slowly pan through a petri dish of soil, litter, and critters floating in ethanol. Although the scene was crowded, again and again these creatures would jump to my attention. The symmetry of the mites’ bodies differentiated them from the irregular, translucent sand particles. There was something instantly recognizable as a form of life in the way the collembola curled into little C’s. Sometimes I’d run across an ant, or a fly, or a mystery (to me) and I’d ask my expert at the scope down the bench to take a look. She recognized all of them easily- isopod, fly larvae, bee.
Your eye can become trained to these patterns so quickly. It’s the same with a botanist who can identify a tree based on the bark in winter, or the birder who knows the swoop of an individual raptor, or the dairyman who could tell you something about health and milk production from a glance at a cow. On top of that, our eyes begin to recognize more complex patterns- familiar ecosystems like cottonwoods, willows and streams or processes like growth, flowering, and senescence. Training to recognize deviations from these patterns is where the rubber hits the road in terms of interesting scientific questions or innovative land management practices....at least, that’s what I tell myself while I put in time at the scope. That, and that I look like a real scientist.
Written by Friday, March 04, 2016 at 2:15 PMon
My friend Dale came up to visit me last week. He’d heard I was starting graduate school and he said he wanted to come up and see what it was all about. “I’ve always thought it might be kind of nice to go to grad school someday,” he told me over the phone. Dale runs a farm back in Missouri, a corn-soybean rotation with a small feedlot of beef cattle.
Dale showed up a little bit late, as I expected him to.
“Thought I’d never get here!” he exclaimed, as soon as he’d found me in my office. “Driving through this city is harder than walking through a field full of cow pies!”
“It sure can be a mess,” I laughed. “Did you manage alright?”
“I suppose,” Dale shrugged, hitching his thumbs in the pockets of his overalls. “I was havin’ so much trouble with them big roads… then there’s so many doggone kids out walking around, and people on bicycles, and scooters, and buses going every which way! I didn’t know where to turn. Finally I figured I’d just turn off on a nice little side street and find a good place to park near your building. I got turned off on one, but then I seen the darn thing had a yellow striped line down the middle of it, and I’ll be dogged if I couldn’t fit my old farm truck on both sides of that line put together!”
“Hmm,” I said. “And did you see a lot of cyclists on that…street?”
“Tons of ‘em!” Dale nodded. “All wavin’ their arms at me, giving me dirty looks… Not too polite about sharing the road, are they?”
“Mm,” I replied. “Well, you made it here, anyway. Are you ready for a tour of campus?”
Dale hadn’t brought the right footwear, as I had expected. I loaned him my nicest pair of Birkenstocks. “Can you take a picture of me wearing these?” Dale laughed. “I look like a real grad student now!”
After snapping a few photos, I ushered Dale downstairs and out of the building. It was a bright sunny day, and campus was bustling with people: students on their cell phones, professors on their bicycles, grounds crews and construction teams hard at work.
“Sure is impressive,” Dale sighed as we climbed a hill overlooking the lake. “Sometimes I just wonder about this whole ‘conventional’ education thing though.”
“Yea?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Dale stared at his shoes. “Sure uses a lot of resources, don’t it?”
“Yea,” I said. “I suppose.”
I told Dale a little bit about my research, which I thought he would appreciate. I was looking into whether letting cattle graze on grasslands with lots of shrubs could help prevent the shrubs from taking over the grassland. Dale seemed interested.
“I had a neighbor that did that for a while,” he said. “He said the cattle could kind of keep up with the brush, but never could quite get ahead of it. I think eventually he went ahead and nuked ‘em all with chemical and that took care of ‘em. Wait until old Floyd hears he was doing research!”
“Interesting,” I said. “Well, we’ll see what our study shows. The more information the better as far as I’m concerned!”
Dale’s smile faded. “Maybe you’re right,” he said slowly, “but do you ever get the feeling that maybe there’s too MUCH information out there?”
“Too much information?” I said in surprise. “I don’t know if you can ever have too much information.”
“Well…” Dale seemed reluctant to continue, but he did. “Take your research, for example,” he said. “Someone’s already looked into that. We got a surplus of information. We got so much that it’s going to waste! We can’t get what we have to the people that need it, but we keep paying people to produce more of it!”
“But…” I was a bit taken aback. “This is your first time on a college campus, Dale,” I said. “You’d probably see things differently if you’d been here a while.”
“I expect,” Dale said.
“Besides,” I added, “with the challenges our world is facing today, we’re gonna need as much information as we can get. There are seven billion people out there who want an education, and even more on the way. We’ve gotta be able to educate the world!”
Dale frowned, but didn’t argue with me. He asked me a bit more about my research and about life in Madison as we wandered around campus, enjoying the sights.
“Hey Dale,” I said, struck by an idea, “you wanna go sit in on a class with me? We could go hear a lecture and you could see what it’s all about!”
Dale was shaking his head.
“C’mon Dale, it’ll be fun!”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“To tell you the truth,” Dale said, “those classrooms make me uncomfortable.”
“Don’t worry,” I smiled, “you’re won’t have to take a test or anything!”
“It ain’t that,” Dale said, walking a little faster. “Those classes just don’t feel right to me. All those young people, in the prime of their life, stuck inside in some little bitty desk where they barely got room to move… They can’t talk to each other, can’t go outside…why, they don’t even have room to turn around in those things!”
“Dale, it’s the most efficient way to educate—” I began.
“You think that’s the best way to do it, do you?” Dale asked loudly, walking faster. “With these…confinement operations?”
“They’re not confinement operations,” I sighed. “Those students want to be there.”
“Yea, that’s the worst of it,” Dale said, walking even faster and frowning down at the sidewalk. “Those kids just keep trying to make conventional education work for them. They’re going into debt that they’ll never get out of, and the only way they can pay off their debt is to try getting more degrees, and and then they get in over their heads, they’re producing things we already got a surplus of, and the banks keep loaning to them and sooner or later they’re gonna lose the farm! I’ve seen it happen over and over, and I wish I could just tell those kids to get out while they can!”
“They’re not in over their heads,” I said sharply. “We all know that tuition costs are getting ridiculous, but you have to make sacrifices for a good education. If you want to be the best in your field, sometimes you have to go big or get out!”
I took a deep breath. I was letting Dale get under my skin. I had to remember that he was just trying to make sense of a world he knew nothing about.
Dale’s pace slowed, and we walked in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke.
“Have you ever looked into some of this alternative education?” he asked quietly. “Folks call it alternative, but really it’s been going on for thousands of years. People have been doing it all over the world.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself to stay calm. “Is that so?” I asked, opening them again.
“I think you’d be interested in it,” Dale nodded. “Everybody does it a little bit different, but it always seems to work pretty well. It’s all about being holistic. You don’t need to worry about grading systems, or standards, or market demands, or none of that, because it all happens right there in the local community and everybody can see whether it’s working. And it’s all based on relationships, so in the end all the benefits go right back into the community.”
I was walking faster. Dale had to hurry to catch up.
“Seems like a lot more natural system to me,” he continued.
“Does it?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“I reckon so. An’ it used to be what everyone did, back in the old days. It’s just our modern industrial system that’s created this expensive and inefficient educational—”
“Listen, Dale,” I said, finally losing my temper, “you don’t know a thing about what it’s like to be in grad school! You don’t even know how to drive on a college campus! I took time out of my day to show you around, and this is how you repay me, by telling me that everything I’m doing is a mistake?”
Dale had stopped walking, and was looking uncomfortable.
“Do you know how that feels?” I asked him in exasperation.
Dale shrugged his shoulders. “I might,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, glaring at him.
Dale started walking again, slower this time. I followed.
“I had a group of college kids come out for a tour of my farm last week,” he said. “They were all dressed wrong, scared of stepping in mud, checking their phones all the time...” He glanced at me. “Half of them couldn’t’ve told a bull from a steer, and yet they’re asking me why I use antibiotics on my cattle. Telling me why I oughtta be organic. Do you know how hard it is to have some ignorant son-of-a-gun telling you about something you’ve been doing for your whole life?”
“Well, I—” I began. I wasn’t sure what to say. “I guess, now that you’ve told me, I…maybe I do.”
“Good,” Dale said with a chuckle. “You sound pretty well educated to me!”
Written by Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 2:15 PMon
In a country where it sometimes feels like every acre is settled, one needn’t travel to the wilderness of Alaska to find uninhabited land. In fact, there is an abundance of unused land within easy reach just about everywhere- getting there is as easy as getting in a car. The land on the edges and in the medians of roads has long been ignored, but the fact that these regions aren’t used doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful.
There are more than 100,000 miles of public roads within the state of Wisconsin. The land bordering highways may seem an unlikely area for wildlife to survive (as evidenced by the dead deer and raccoons that often litter the roadsides), but these areas are actually a great place for certain animals to live. Roadsides provide important habitat for ground nesting birds. Bees and butterflies can spend entire life cycles among the flowers there. Native plant species that were once found in the ancient prairies, savannas, and forests where the state’s highways now stand can sometimes still be seen growing in the right-of-ways, often in areas that are too steep or rocky for mowers to reach.
The primary motivation behind roadside mowing, of course, is to improve motorists’ safety by preventing obstructions and increasing visibility. Mowing can also help to control invasive or noxious plant species like wild parsnip, spotted knapweed, and Canada thistle if its timing coincides with critical stages in the plants’ life cycles. In Wisconsin, we often begin seeing roadside mowing crews in early July. Each county is responsible for contracting with a mowing company to maintain its roadsides, and each county also has its own regulations that govern how much vegetation should be removed.
The when and why of mowing begins to get complicated, however, when one considers that many of the flowers being mowed (even the invasive ones) are attractive to foraging pollinators and birds. If mowing occurs too early, pollinators lose these flowers. Caterpillars are cut down right along with their host plants. Baby birds meet a gruesome fate if their nest lies in the path of a mower’s blades. Further complicating the logistics of roadside mowing are the many interpretations of the ideal roadside aesthetic. People who prefer flat, weed-free swaths of grass are at odds with those who would rather eliminate mowing altogether. Somewhere in the middle of this debate are conservationists, many of whom have been suggesting that the careful management of roadside areas can bolster vulnerable populations of plants and wildlife.
The Federal Government is paying attention to these voices. In May of 2015, the White House unveiled a national strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. The plan aims to add or improve 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years. If every highway’s right-of-ways were managed to include un-mowed patches of native flowers, this goal could be surpassed by more than double by creating an impressive 17 million acres of pollinator habitat across the country. Less mowing would also allow counties to allocate less of their road management budget towards fuel.
2015 also saw the introduction of the Highway BEE Act, a bill that aims to make the possibility of roadside management for wildlife a reality. The BEE Act - also known as the Bettering the Economy and Environment Pollinator Protection Act- has already amassed about 1,000 signatures of support from businesses and individuals. Most of the Wisconsin signatures on the petition are, unsurprisingly, from bee keepers.
As conservation plans move through the federal government, some agencies have taken matters into their own hands. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for example, has established guidelines to maximize the conservation value of roadside land. Right-of-way mowing is delayed to give fledgling birds time to mature and leave nests. Living snow fences –strips of dense, diverse native trees- protect motorists from gusting wind and drifting snow in winter while also providing habitat for many wildlife species. Complete roadside mowing is replaced by the selective mowing of particularly dense patches of noxious weeds.
Integrated vegetation restoration could be a great thing for Wisconsin’s roadways, but the decision of where and how to mow a roadside is complex. Both the Department of Transportation and individual municipalities have experienced declining roadside management budgets over several years, leading some counties to only mow once per year. Other counties mow more than once and only cut two mower-lengths from the road.
The state of Iowa has found an effective way to fund its counties’ roadside conservation budgetary needs. Since 1990, the state has funded roadside vegetation management with a Living Roadway Trust Fund. Administered by the Department of Transportation, the fund has awarded millions of dollars in grants to cities, counties, and other entities looking to administer roadside conservation and restoration projects within the state.
At present, Wisconsin’s ever-shrinking transportation budget simply can’t support a state-wide roadside conservation initiative. Change may come, but in the meantime take a second look at what was once thought of as wasted space the next time you drive our state’s highways and byways- you might even catch the buzz of a bee or the colorful chaos of a monarch in flight.
Written by Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 2:15 PMon
Think back to when you first heard about Somali pirates. Try to remember how you pictured them. If you’re like me, your first thought was probably, “Pirates? You mean they’re still around?” Then you saw photos: motorboats of sullen-faced men holding machine guns. There were no peg legs or parrots, no hooks or tricorn hats, no cannons or cutlasses. “Oh,” you may have thought to yourself, “not real pirates.”
Like modern pirates, modern farmers can be hard for us to recognize. Despite what we know about farming and agriculture, we have such a strong cultural image of what a “real” farmer is that we don’t always recognize farmers when we encounter them. Modern-day farmers are becoming less and less like the farmers in our cultural consciousness, and it’s starting to cause some problems.
For example, the US government expects to spend almost $7 billion dollars next year in agricultural subsidies, and sometimes that money ends up going to people who don’t meet the loosest definition of “farmer.” While the farm subsidy program was meant to provide security to working farmers during hard times, subsidy money has recently been collected by people like Microsoft founder Paul Allen and basketball star Scottie Pippen. These men were able to qualify for subsidy payments by meeting the USDA’s requirements for being “actively engaged in farming,” which include simply owning land that is used for farming. While it’s unlikely they fit your idea of “real” farmers, Allen and Pippen technically meet the legal definition. The USDA is currently attempting to close the loopholes on their “actively engaged” requirements, a reminder of just how difficult (and important) it is to define who the real farmers are.
Unsatisfied with the USDA’s definition of “farmer,” I tried coming up with my own definition…and quickly realized just how hard it can be. Here is my list of what I considered the defining traits of a “real” farmer, followed by my attempts to verify these assumptions.
1. Real farmers must consider farming their primary job, with the majority of their time, energy, and money invested in farming.
Fact: Less than half of US farm owners consider farming their main occupation.
2. Real farmers must be involved in management decisions on the farm, not just provide labor.
Fact: At least a third of US farm workers are hired labor.
3. Being a farmer is a lifestyle, not just a temporary occupation.
Fact: Over three quarters of US farmers have farmed for at least ten years.
4. I’ll admit, when I picture a farmer in my head, he’s usually male.
5. Real farmers are able to support themselves solely through farming.
Fact: Less than a quarter of U.S. farms produce more than $50,000 in gross revenue a year.
As you can see, only one of my defining traits (#3) was strongly supported by the current data on US farmers. And this list doesn’t even attempt to define farmers globally. The real farmers in our world, like the real pirates, sometimes look very different than we expect them to. Many Americans, if asked to define “farmer,” might even reply, “Farmers? You mean they’re still around?”
It could be that farmers are just evolving with the times. Or it could be that modern farmers have evolved so much that they’re no longer true farmers, but have become businessmen, laborers, gardeners, and hobby farmers. What do you think? Now it’s your turn to join the conversation. If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, please take two minutes and leave a comment with your best definition of “farmer.” I’m eager to hear your feedback!
Written by Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 2:15 PMon
It is the second day of the Agroecological Imagination conference in Madison, WI, and the chilled indoor air is vibrant with conversation. Fifty researchers, students and practitioners of Agroecology, many of whom have traveled from France, are gathered to explore the “what” and “why” of their discipline. It is an unconventional conference; inspiration and idealism have as much currency here as data and proof. At big round tables, participants are sharing big questions, coffee, and plans for the future. In a quiet moment, so that all gathered can hear, someone asks the biggest question of all, the one we think we should have answered by now, the one some of us would rather avoid:
“So, how exactly do we define Agroecology?”
Written by Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 2:15 PMon
Why do we believe what we believe? Why do scientists hold different opinions than the public? Why do many people deny what science has proven? Well, it’s hard for scientific information to suppress our intuitions, it turns out. Our intuitions are representative of who we are and what tribe we belong to, and we hold them tightly because to change them would be to shift our membership in our tribe.
I had an alarming confrontation with the shallow nature of my own scientific beliefs recently.
Written by Monday, June 01, 2015 at 2:15 PMon
Give a Madison chef a perfectly round bright red tomato, and she’ll thank you politely. Give her a misshapen bright orange tomato, or a giant yellow one streaked with red, or one that’s the size of a ping pong ball and almost completely black, and you’ll see her eyes widen with excitement. At this point, you should probably prepare to be hugged. And then robbed of your remaining tomatoes.
Written by Friday, May 22, 2015on
“Lot 1 is Goldwyn Deidra. Every sale’s gotta have a Lot 1, and she’s a beauty: seven generations excellent and fresh in January. Goldwyn’s got champions in her bloodline, folks. Who’ll give me $3,000?”
Goldwyn Deidra was oblivious, of course. The 1,500-pound dairy cow, six years old and still a steady producer, was the first of more than 180 purebred Holsteins to parade through a makeshift sales ring in a machine shed south of Sparta. The shed was on Tyrone and Barb Johnson’s farm, 240 acres of cropland with a fringe of forest in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. After a lifetime in dairying, Tyrone, at the age of 60, was leaving the business.
Written by Friday, May 01, 2015on
Our feelings affect our physical bodies. So do grasshoppers’, it turns out. I think ecologically-minded entomologists have perhaps known for a long time that we should be paying more attention to the feelings of the small critters they study. But if, like me, you are not an entomologist, perhaps you have been in the dark about the fantastic impact of insect fear on the ecosystem.