Farmers have carefully manicured their farmlands for generations. They bulldoze bush, drain wetlands and plant crops as close to the roads as local bylaws allow, all to make field operations most efficient.

But is all the time, effort, and expense devoted to eliminating every square foot of wasteland in the producer’s financial best interests?

Studies spearheaded by Paul Galpern, a landscape ecologist at the University of Calgary, and others from Europe suggest that the pursuit of open, drained, rectangular fields costs farmers money.

Power of Nature. Galpern says that if producers want to leverage the power of nature, they have to be prepared to accept messy fields. He defines messy fields as those that are not just solid crop from edge to edge. It also contains those annoying uncultivated patches of wetlands, trees, and grasslands.

“Farmers worry that there are going to be places where the bad guys live, where the pests hang out, as well as reservoirs for weeds,” Galpern says.

“We don’t have any strong evidence that those features are actually bad for fields. We only have some evidence that they’re slightly positive for yield.

“They provide ecosystem services, the things that nature gives to people to help them. This could be [providing habitat for] the predators, the natural enemies of crop pests that hang out in that patch of trees, that bit of grass, or near that wetland. It could also be the bees that nest in the ground, where the plow doesn’t reach, that pollinate the crop.”

There are all kinds of studies done around the world but primarily focused on Europe, showing how diverse landscapes of crops, trees, meadows, and wetlands contain far higher numbers and varieties of wild pollinators and predators than ones that are dominated by monocultures.

Not only do diverse landscapes produce slightly higher yields, they provide enhanced biological pest control, reducing the need to rely as much on insecticides.

Places to hang out. “If you grow crops that are helped by increased numbers of bees and predator insects to improve your yields, you also have to think about the surrounding landscapes that they need to survive,” Galpern says. “Maybe they need places in your field where they can hang out and complete parts of their lifecycle. Perhaps they need a place where they can overwinter, or need a certain kind of food that might grow beside your crop, not in it.”

Many of the 300-plus species of wild bees that live in Alberta, for example, rely on the pothole wetlands that are common in many fields on the Prairies. They not only provide nesting habitat, but they also contain flowering plants that provide a food source.

Paul Galpern’s research is trying to quantify the benefits that the hundreds of varieties of native bees, spiders, and beetles are providing to farmers.

While large bees can fly significant distances looking for food, smaller bees and predator insects like spiders and beetles cannot.

So if more of your field is within easy commuting distance of the messy spots that these insects need, the greater the impact they can provide.

The flip side is true, too, Galpern adds. The further you move the messy bits or habitat away from your crop, the further you force them to fly or walk to their needed destination.

Large fields and the ability to drive machinery a long way without turning provides great efficiency returns to farmers.

So the big question researchers are trying to determine, like Galpern at the University of Calgary, and Laurel Thompson at Lakeland College in Vermillion, Alberta, is whether the economic advantages of the messy spots outweigh the efficiency returns of larger open fields.

Aggregate data from crop insurance records show they definitely do on a region-wide basis.

“Our pilot study showed this pattern of higher yields, more seeds in your canola pods, when you are closer to wetland areas than when you’re far away,” Galpern says.  “The explanation for this could be that the bees or other animals that are living in their wetland are providing ecological services. It could also be a moisture-related issue, but it ultimately comes down to wetlands are providing some services to the crop.”

Currently, Galpern and Thompson are conducting studies to precisely quantify how distance from wetlands or other messy areas impact yields.

In the end, they hope to determine how much of this benefit is due to higher soil moisture, and how much of it is due to the wetlands providing habitat to beneficial insects.

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