USDA conservation program collaborates with local farmers to create beautiful, eco-friendly habitat
“For all our grumbling about wasteful and purposeless government spending, I look at this project and think to myself, ‘Now this is money well spent,’ ” said Emily Alma, co-owner of Riparia, a 12-acre organic farm in south Chico.
Alma was referring to Riparia’s recent partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NCRS works to help farmers and ranchers conserve and improve their land’s natural resources—soil, water, air, plants and animals—while also assisting them in making a living by sharing costs.
Since late 2009, Riparia—which is farmed by two people who lease the working part of the bucolic property—has incorporated several NRCS conservation programs into the care of the land, including cover-cropping and the planting and tending of riparian-forest buffer zones, native bunch-grass cover areas and wildlife-habitat management areas.
Planting dense hedgerows of varied vegetation is a significant element of the NRCS program.
Hedgerows are recognized by environmental scientists as perfect multiresource conservation tools. Mixed-plant hedgerows help improve air quality by absorbing carbon and by diminishing wind and airborne dust and pollutant distribution, reports Dan Taverner, NRCS district conservationist for Butte County. They address water-quality issues by filtering and slowing rainfall, allowing runoff to percolate slowly into the soil and water table. They improve soil quality by supporting and encouraging soil biology through healthy and extensive root systems, and by diminishing soil erosion.
Hedgerow plants also help feed and house pollinators and other beneficial insect and wildlife populations, which in turn increase pollination of food crops and help to control pest populations. This last part is critically important to farmers hoping to cut their expenditures and reliance on imported pollinators and/or chemical pesticides.
Alma’s 825 feet of young hedgerow were planted last fall. She looks forward to the day when they grow up to be like the hedgerows in and around the Durham orchards of third-generation farmer Fred Stolp. “If you like mine,” she said, “wait till you see his.”
Stolp and his family have 275 working acres of walnut trees flanking Durham Slough. Stolp, whose property boasts approximately two miles of NRCS-cost-shared hedgerows, was “one of the early visionaries and pioneers” in implementing several NRCS conservation strategies, including his extensive hedgerows, said Taverner.
Stolp’s mature, thick hedge—roughly seven feet high and 20 feet wide—was active on a recent sunny spring day with nectaring hummingbirds, songbirds looking for seeds and bugs, and soaring birds of prey swooping and hunting. The hedgerow—a tapestry of different shades of green—was textural with many different heights, widths and forms of plants, from the tall, arching, willow-like mulefat plant to dense, rounded buckbrush.
Young redbud peapods indicated earlier bloom, while white yarrow, red mallow, spicebush and red salvia were just coming into bloom. Hibiscus, narrow-leaved milkweed and buckwheat were greening up for mid- and late-summer bloom. The opening buds of a coffeeberry shrub were a hub of activity with the buzzing, rolling and darting of pollen-collecting bees.
When asked his favorite thing about his nearly 4-year-old hedgerows, Stolp answered simply: “They are just so pretty—full of life. They look natural and blend into the native landscape.”
“We have many conservation initiatives, but the hedgerows are perhaps the most beautiful, [both] as elements in the landscape and as conservation tools,” agreed Taverner, walking Stolp’s hedgerows in early May.
In order to have successful habitat hedge, he added, “it’s important to have something in bloom as much of the year as possible as well as having as long and wide a stretch of hedge as possible in order to provide year-round shelter, nesting space and food.”
Stolp and Alma are two of 10 agricultural landowners in the NRCS’ Butte County district partnering on cost-sharing conservation incentive contracts. When an agricultural producer contracts to participate, he or she agrees to follow NCRS specifications for how to plant and maintain a hedgerow for best environmental results—including tasks such as keeping up with weed suppression, irrigation and replacing any plants that die. In return, using a formula generated from statewide cost averages, the landowners are reimbursed for half of the costs of labor and materials needed to establish the hedge.
Landowners who partner with the NRCS are supplied with a list of good habitat plants for their region, including information on when these plants bloom and what their mature size and cultivation requirements are. Contracts are often staggered over time; in the case of Stolp’s and Alma’s conservation-project contracts, additional linear feet of hedgerow or other plantings have been or will be added over the course of several years.
“While I was [already] taking dedicated conservation actions along Comanche Creek [which borders Riparia Farm]—for instance, removing invasive hackberry and privet and replanting native alder, sycamore, Oregon ash and button willow to improve habitat and diminish erosion—partnering with the NRCS augmented my work,” Alma said. On a regular basis, she added, NRCS agents come to check on progress and offer advice and support, “which is helpful. It keeps you on track and motivated.
“The NRCS folks are right there to answer questions. This was sometimes a daunting project for me; the NRCS advice was invaluable.”
“I learn more as I go,” said Stolp. “Now when I add new hedgerow, I try to follow Mother Nature and place each plant type in groups of more than one. The way quailbush grows taught me that.”
While the motivation for each landowner is varied—some wanting to entice more pollinators, some wanting to improve natural pest management—when all is said and done, it comes down to environmental stewardship made easier and more affordable.
And sheer love of the beauty of hedgerow habitat.
“I’ve had wild turkeys nesting in the hedges,” said Stolp, clearly pleased. “I can’t wait till we get a covey of quail, just to enjoy them being there.”
Jennifer Jewell is host of the weekly gardening program In a North State Garden on Northstate Public Radio (KCHO 91.7 FM).