Workshop Addresses Farming for Pollinators and Soil Health, and How Use of Neonicotinoids and Pesticides Impact Both
By Joanna Voigt
On Wednesday, July 26, 2017, over 50 farmers and people concerned with pollinator health on the farm gathered in Holton, Kansas, for a farm tour and workshop. The KRC-sponsored workshop focused on farming practices that benefit pollinators and reduce pesticide use.
The day started with a tour of Shane New’s farm outside of Holton. New utilizes practices that focus on building soil health, reducing chemical inputs, and conserving the resources on his farm while putting them to use to increase biodiversity, resiliency, and productivity. New sees a strong tie between the health of the soil and the health of other living things, including humans.
New talked about the “Aha!” moments that led him from conventional agricultural practices to the farming practices he uses now that rely more on soil biology and less on chemical inputs. His children and future generations are important reasons why he farms the way he does. New also emphasizes that the practices he uses must keep the farm profitable or he might as well quit farming.
New utilizes compost to boost organic matter in his soil and to allow soil biology to work for him, creating a healthy ecosystem in the soil that is able to supply plants with the things they need in order to thrive. New purchased a microscope soon after starting down the path he’s on, and uses it regularly, checking to see what’s happening in his soil with his own eyes.
The afternoon discussion at the EUM Church in Holton featured presentations about pollinators and neonicotinoids, attracting beneficial insects to the farm, and a panel of four farmers who utilize farming strategies that minimize chemical inputs and help protect pollinators of their farms.
Lucinda Stuenkel, Sunny Day Farms, Palmer; Gail Fuller, G & L Whole Foods, Emporia; Robin Griffeth, Griffeth Family Farms, Jewell, and Shane New talked about focusing on soil health and increasing biodiversity on their farms. Use of a mix of cover crops, study of soil biology, adding biodiversity, reducing disturbance of the soil, and moving away from pesticides and other chemicals were topics of discussion.
Stuenkel talked about taking over her farm unexpectedly after the death of her husband and his brother, and the steps she has taken to keep the farm going and to farm in a way that promotes the health of the land she farms. Stuenkel employs a wide range of measures to promote diversity on her farm, and has an abundance of pollinator habitat as a result. She quit using neonicotinoid-coated seeds a number of years ago, and has not been negatively impacted by a change in yield.
Fuller talked about the need to increase biodiversity across every part of the farm, from crops to forages to animals and habitat. Fuller interseeds his crops and forage fields with a broad mix of plant species, including a fair number of species that might not be the first to come to mind when thinking about cover crops, such as marigolds and tomatoes. Fuller utilizes livestock as an integral part of his management scheme, letting them improve soil health and add biodiversity to the ecosystem on his farm. Fuller pointed out that if you want to help pollinators, you need to look at the broader picture, always keeping an eye on increasing biodiversity.
Shane New showed the group what he sees when he looks at soil samples under his microscope. New uses farming strategies based on the SoilFood Web, emphasized by Dr. Elaine Ingham, as the basis for healthy soil and plants and ecosystems. A wide range of microbes, fungi, and bacteria are the ultimate goal and New’s slides demonstrated this.
Robin Griffeth, Griffeth Family Farm, Jewell, also focuses on increasing soil health through the use of cover crops. Like several of the other farmers and people at the workshop, Griffeth has been inspired by Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, former USDA-ARS research scientist. The award-winning entomologist now runs his own regenerative, research farm in South Dakota. His knowledge of the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators and other beneficial insects has been a primary source of information and inspiration for those wanting to move away from using neonicotinoids and other pesticides. Griffeth grows sunflowers, in addition to other crops, and makes a concerted effort to track down sunflower seeds that are not treated with neonicotinoids, after learning of the impact on pollinators.
Access to non-neonicotinoid-coated seeds was a topic of discussion more than once during the day. Farmers are finding that if they call their seed dealers far enough ahead (possibly up to a year ahead of planting), they are sometimes able to get non-treated seeds. This includes Pioneer Seed. The more farmers ask for non-coated seeds, the more available they will become. A few local and regional seed companies sell non-coated seeds, as well. Growing public varieties is an option and allows for farmers to save seeds.
Coping with the pressure of being judged by neighbors and peers for doing something different on the farm was another topic discussed by the farmers. As Fuller put it, “Peer pressure is huge. It’s huge.” Nevertheless, these farmers are committed to farming in ways they feel will carry themselves and their farms and families into the future.
Other speakers during the afternoon included Angela Anderson, Kansas Wildlife Federation, who talked about the resolution that she authored which focuses on restricting neonicotinoid use, and which has been adopted by the National Wildlife Federation. To read the resolution, visit http://www.nwf.org/Who-We-Are/Affiliate-Partnership/Resolutions/Resolutions/2017/2017-02.aspx.
Joanna Voigt, Kansas Rural Center, discussed pollinators, their importance to farms, food, ecosystem health and biodiversity, and how neonicotinoids are impacting pollinators worldwide. She pointed to farming practices that use agroecological and regenerative principles as means to dramatically decrease pesticide use on the farm. These practices also incorporate habitat, which is critical to pollinator populations.
Retired Colonel Gary LaGrange talked about his Servicemember Agricultural Vocation Education (SAVE) Farm, near Manhattan, Kansas, which is a pathway to farming for veterans and servicemembers. Beekeeping is a significant part of the curriculum, and making and selling beekeeping equipment provides revenue for the farm. For more information on this exceptional farm, see http://www.thesavefarm.org/.
Sarah Zukoff, PhD, K-State Research and Extension, Entomologist, provided information on the efficacy of neonicotinoids in soybeans and other crops in Kansas and information on how to attract beneficial insects to the farm. Zukoff pointed out that neonicotinoids were the first new class of systemic insecticides introduced in over 50 years, and are considered safer than earlier insecticides. But this was before some of the research came in on efficacy of seed coatings and harm to pollinators and soils.
Zukoff co-authored a report published by 12 universities that explored the efficacy of neonicotinoids in soybeans. The report concluded that there are few to no benefits to farmers in using neonicotinoid-coated soybean seeds in nearly all circumstances. She spoke of a two to three week efficacy once the coated seed is planted that does not coincide with the timing of the primary pests. Neonicotinoid seed treatment, she concluded, is unnecessary in Kansas unless you know you definitely have a problem. Spending your dollars on Integrated Pest Management that helps determine the need for pesticides and spraying once the need is identified is a better economic investment. Zukoff also talked about the vast number of beneficial insects as compared to insect pests, and discussed strategies for attracting them.
Several presentations, and the resources on alternative farming practices and the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators, are available on KRC’s website.
The workshop was hosted by the Kansas Rural Center with funding from The Ceres Trust.
For more information on KRC’s pollinator work contact Joanna Voigt at firstname.lastname@example.org.