Farmers could lose money filling a field from brim to brim with crops, an expert said Friday, while they could benefit from identifying and restoring unprofitable areas within fields.
“There can be small areas within a field that are less profitable,” said Claire Kremen, a University of British Columbia ecologist and applied conservation biologist.
“I’m not talking about identifying large landscapes that are marginal. I’m talking about within a farmer’s field or just around a farmer’s field boundaries – if it works that way – less productive areas. Let’s find those lands because taking those lands out of production is less of a hit to the farmer and it could actually make their farm more profitable.”
Global positioning is a technology that enables this type of precision farming, Kremen said. GPS can tell farmers exactly where they are in a field while the combine records yield, making it possible to identify specific areas of low productivity. By restoring habitats in these unproductive areas, farmers can reduce labor, seed, fertilizer, pesticide and fuel costs, Kremen said, while improving pollination, pest control, disease control, water quality, soil health, erosion control and carbon storage.
Kremen highlighted a British study led by Richard Pywell of the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology. In this study, farmers planted corners and edges of fields with habitat for pollinators and birds. They removed up to 8 percent of the land from production, but found that production on the remaining arable land increased just as much, partly due to improved pollination.
“Across all crops, production was actually increased significantly in the fields with the plantings,” Kremen said in a presentation hosted by the University of Chicago on Friday. “And together they increased production to the point where there was no difference in overall production, even though up to 8 percent of the country was taken out of production. And there was no significant difference in gain between treatments either.”
Efforts are underway to get more farmers to try this form of habitat restoration, Kremen said, but many farmers need help with the upfront costs and access to technology.
“If you can help farmers do this profit mapping on their farm, they can essentially see, ‘Wow, I’m losing money on this part of my field, it wouldn’t be so bad to put this in a habitat,'” Kremen said .
Kremen sees this as an “exciting” step towards further efforts to make agriculture less hostile to biodiversity and climate change. Agriculture is responsible for deforestation, some of the most harmful greenhouse gases, nutrient and sediment pollution, toxins from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
“That’s only part of the problem,” she said of farming, “but it’s a big part of the problem.”
But it doesn’t have to be, she added. Farms and managed forests can produce products for humans while protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Farmers can achieve these benefits through mixed planting, longer and more varied crop rotations, hedges, buffer strips, riparian corridors, patches of woodland, meadows, natural irrigation.
“Deforestation is the easiest and most straightforward way – just expand instead of trying to use the land we already have,” she said. “The problem is that so many lands are being abandoned, agricultural land, and it really doesn’t take that into account when people try to compare these farming systems.
“They will say we can’t not do conventional farming because we have to feed the world. And that’s because conventional farming — if you dump all those chemicals in there — is pretty productive and produces a lot of food. But we forget that at a certain point it (the land) is exhausted and can no longer be used at all and is abandoned. So this part of our country is no longer feeding the world. So we should also take into account that some of these lands are currently being mined. Then people go and cut down more forest. We want to prevent such things.”