Healthy Farm Practices: A Landscape Approach
Farms are not isolated from one another or from the natural systems around them, and they function best when that is taken into account. Recent research has shown, for example, that uncultivated areas on and near farms—including trees, shrubs, and grasses at the edges of crop fields and along streams—can serve as resources for farmers. By fostering biodiversity and providing habitat for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, such as birds, bats, and bees, uncultivated areas can boost farm productivity and reduce costs.
Researchers recently estimated that the loss of uncultivated habitat near farms in the Midwest has increased the use of insecticide needed to control pests by an amount that would cover some 5,400 square miles of crops (see figure below). In addition, streamside woodlots on and near farms serve to buffer waterways from erosion and polluting runoff.
Farmers can also improve their operations by partnering with neighboring farmers to share and conserve resources. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has had success pairing dozens of farmers on thousands of acres for innovative collaborations—swapping livestock manure for feed crops, integrating cropping systems, and sharing equipment—that have led to environmental improvement and increased farm profitability. Such cooperation could generate similar benefits anywhere agricultural diversity exists.
Detail of figure from a recent study showing the correlation between percentage of cultivated land and percentage of land treated with insecticides. From Meehan et al, Agricultural landscape simplification and insecticide use in the Midwestern United States, PNAS 2011. (Click for complete figure.)