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Can Farming and Wildlife Coexist?

Recent biodiversity decline can be partially attributed to agricultural causes, but a new film from Jon Bowermaster profiles local efforts to improve the ecology of farming.

The Hudson Valley Farm Hub seeks to align food production and conservation through collaborate research.
Photos by Devin Pickering + Chris Rahm/Oceans 8 Films
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Farming is ever-evolving: especially true here in the Hudson Valley these days, where farms big and small are booming, and many are experimenting with new ways.

Today, when we think about what’s to come next for farmers, a key question is: “How do we produce food, ensure that farmers can make a living, while at the same time respecting the needs of other organisms that share the land?” 

For the past four years, the Applied Farmscape Ecology Research Collaborative program, based at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Hurley, has deployed a team of scientists and researchers to monitor soil, water, and wildlife to discover how—to prove?—that farming and wildlife can coexist.

My film company, Oceans 8 Films, spent six months in 2019 observing and monitoring the research done by the collaborative team, which represents a sizable swath of Hudson Valley scientists and farmers, from Hawthorne Valley, Bard College, SUNY New Paltz, Hudsonia, and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. Our short film is called, simply, “Farmscape Ecology,” and it’s the latest in our Hudson River Stories series. The film profiles the various partners as they dig into how changes in everything from where you plant native flowers and how many insects are collected to the moisture and microbiology of the soil can impact crop growth.

It is a multiyear project for a variety of good reasons: these are scientists looking for trends rather than black-and-white results at the end of each season. As a journalist, the research can be a bit frustrating, because we like concrete answers now. (Q: Are more insects in the field good for crops, or bad? A: Far too early to tell, ask me again in three years.) These scientists seem happier the longer the study goes on, giving them lots to ponder over our cold winters, while waiting for the fields to green again so they can keep trying to prove, or disprove, what they observed last season.

One thing this team has definitely learned is that it takes a village to change soil, water, insect, and farmers’ habits. Once you think you’ve learned something on a farm, it can take some hard convincing to get your neighbors to sign on to conducting similar experiments, whether it’s encouraging certain insects or planting specific flower mixes irrigating more, or irrigating less, or deciding which organic chemicals to use…or not. All are ultimately discoveries to be shared, which is the goal of farmscape ecology.

On a misty morning in the heart of the 1,500-acre farm, you get a sense of the intersection of man-shaped farm fields butting up against native forest.
Conrad Vispo, a wildlife ecologist at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program and lead insect-wrangler on the Farm Hub project, takes a break on one of a long string of hot summer days in the Hurley Flats. Over the course of the summer he’ll set up a variety of “traps” to catch insects so he can assess where they are most prolific in regard to crops and if their presence helps, or hurts, growing.
Field botanist Claudia Knab-Vispo counts flowers in one of her nine Native Meadow Trial fields with intern Jackie Edget. Her summer goal is planting a variety of flowers, native and otherwise, to try and assess the amount and kind of floral resources available for insects in the different parts of the farm to learn if, like insects, a border of wild flowers growing next to a field of vegetables or grain may help or hinder crops.
Kenny Fowler, a field technician at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, uses a net to “sweep” vegetation in order to help monitor insect life at the Farm Hub. It’s amazing how many bugs are netted in a thirty-second sweep.
A late-summer aerial of the Native Meadow Trials shows the three test fields: 1) a flower-heavy seed mix, 2) a grass heavy seed mix, and 3) the control plot without any added seeds. The seed mixes perform differently depending on the soil type and the crop history where they were established.
Assessing how much water farm fields need, whether naturally or by irrigation, is studied by a team from SUNY New Paltz, led by Shafiul Chowdhury, director of Environmental Geochemical Science at SUNY New Paltz. Testing for water quality in adjoining streams and creeks is also observed.
Anne Bloomfield, Applied Farmscape Ecology Program Manager at the Farm Hub, studies both the wilder ecology of the farm as well as the pests and diseases found in cultivated fields.
Gabriel Perrone and a team of students from Bard College document and study the microbial diversity found in the soil in the Native Meadow Test plots.
A turtle wears a tracking device that allows biologists from Hudsonia to track its movement week-by-week, to see just how deep into the farm fields he moves…or if perhaps he stays put near a stream. Farm activities using heavy equipment as well as farm roads are a couple obvious potential hazards for any wildlife that make their home next to farms.

Jon Bowermaster is a writer, filmmaker, and ocean advocate. Follow his work at Oceans 8 Films and Hudson River Stories and tune in weekly to the Green Radio Hour on Radio Kingston.