Wisconsin potato and vegetable growers have long looked at sustainability as a three legged stool orf responsibility. One leg is social responsibility, while another is economic. The third leg, which gets a lot of attention, is environmental responsibility. These thoughts and practices are second nature to us, in part, because of our relationship with our core researchers at UW-Madison, USDA, Ag Experiment Systems and our County Extension Agents. Another reason for the prevalence of these practices on our farms is that is makes good business sense, serving us in achieving both our short and long term goals. Biodiversity is just one component of our environmental responsibility.
Biodiversity tells us the number and variety of different native species found within an ecosystem. This is important to each of us. A diverse environment of native species compared to similar environments that are dominated by a few non-native and often weedy less desirable species, is more stable ecologically and provides many essential services to communities. These ecosystem services are not always easy to identify. They include many valuable natural benefits such as: water filtration, maintenance of soil structure and health, habitat for birds and pollinating insects, alternative food sources to preserve beneficial insect predators and habitats for rare and endangered species. We have all of these things at work in our diverse ecosystem landscape.
Dr. Paul Zedler leads a large scale research project out of the Nelson Institute and Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He shows a direct agricultural and societal benefit to enhancing biodiversity on field edges and in natural landscapes between fields in central Wisconsin. Research conducted since 2006 indicates that restored and properly managed bio-diverse landscapes on field edges of privately-owned vegetables growers’ farm land supports significantly more species of birds, insects and plants than abandoned or unmanaged areas. Since the cultivated fields generally have little diversity, the biodiversity contained in non-crop lands is an important contribution to regional services. Dr. Zedler explains “if we take this approach and expand it to other farms and privately-owned lands and look at it on a larger landscape scale, we can greatly enhance our species diversity in Wisconsin, which would have multiple benefits, including improved game habitat and reduced pest pressure on cultivated crops.” In restored landscapes that are managed to enhance biodiversity, rare and endangered species, such as the Karner blue butterfly and the red-headed woodpecker, have been shown to return in larger numbers.
Controlling invasive species is a great concern for biodiversity. Invasive plant species (often also called noxious weeds) include spotted knapweed, reed canary grass, buckthorn, purple loosestrife, garlic mustard and non-native honeysuckle. These non-native plants are often more aggressive and can spread rapidly and quickly displace and possibly replace native species. Over 40% of the species on the Federal Threatened or Endangered lists are at risk primarily because of invasive species. Control is necessary, and growers want to be part of the solution. Growers of potatoes and vegetables in the Central Sands region have been actively working with conservation experts to control invasive plant species on their privately owned lands as part of a “good neighbor policy.” These efforts cost more in the short term, but by controlling invasive species in the system, while enhancing biodiversity and increasing beneficial species in their landscapes, they benefit not only their own farms but also the communities they live in for the long term. Each of the decisions made on our Central Sands farms are related to sustainability – with responsibilities toward society, economics and the environment.