Designing Ecologically Beneficial Habitat for Diverse Farming Systems

Project Overview

OS24-171
Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2024: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2026
Grant Recipient: North Carolina State University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Angel Cruz
Center for Environmental Farming Systems - NC State University

Commodities

No commodities identified

Practices

No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

We propose developing a program
to help growers better implement habitat involving three
objectives:
Objective
1
. Create and install
a habitat design for southeastern agroecosystems.

Objective
2
: Document the
benefits of habitat installation.
Objective 3: Hold a workshop for southeastern growers
detailing the habitat design, where to find resources (seeds and
plugs), installation process, and benefits so as to empower
growers to install habitat on their own farms. This proposal
addresses the
Beneficial Insect Habitat
and Increasing
Sustainability of Existing Farming Practices
focal areas by developing a plant mix that
will provide habitat for native beneficial insects on farms and
encouraging a practice that will increase the sustainability of
farms. Our project team includes local experts on sustainable
agriculture (CEFS [Center for Environmental Farming Systems], NC
[North Carolina] State Cooperative Extension), farming experience
in the southeastern US (farmer cooperator), local, native plants
(NC State Cooperative Extension, NC Botanical Garden), and
beneficial insects in agricultural areas (NC State University).
We will use our collective knowledge, as well as established
literature, to successfully conduct the proposed
project. 

Objective 1.
Create and install a habitat
design for southeastern agroecosystems

In order to create a habitat
design that supports wildlife and meets grower needs, we asked
respondents in our survey to southeastern US growers what kind of
habitat they would be interested in installing on their farm. The
most frequent response indicated that 39.3% of respondents were
interested in habitat designed for field margins/edges. 19.7% of
respondents were interested in installing habitat that included
plants species native to the southeastern US, specifically. And
finally, 17.1% of respondents preferred habitat that included
perennial, herbaceous plant species. We also asked respondents
what benefits and ecosystem services they were hoping to gain
from the habitat. More than a quarter of the respondents (29.9%)
reported that they wanted to support wildlife by installing
habitat. 22.7% reported that they were interested in increasing
pest control in their crops. And 17.5% reported an interest in
increased crop yield as a result of habitat installation. All of
these ecosystem services have been documented to benefit from
habitat installation in previous literature (Blaauw & Isaacs,
2014; Levenson & Tarpy, 2023; Blaauw & Isaacs, 2015; Levenson et
al., 2022). Some respondents also reported an interest in
economic benefits, with 10.1% interested in using the habitat for
seed harvesting and 13.9% interested in using the habitat for cut
flowers. We will use these survey results, as well as the
feedback from our grower cooperator, when creating the habitat
design. Once a design is finalized, we will use funds from this
proposal to install the habitat design on 3 North Carolina farms.
Our team will provide growers with the design, plants and seeds,
and assist in installation.

Objective
2
: Document the
benefits of habitat installation

Out of our 200 respondents, 51.1%
reported growing crop types on their farms that rely to some
extent on pollinators and so could see direct benefits from
habitat installation. These crops could also receive indirect
benefits from habitat installation in the form of increased
natural enemies that help control pest populations. To ensure
that our habitat design will provide these ecosystem services to
farms, we will conduct pre- and post-installation insect surveys
on the 3 farms where habitat is installed. In these surveys we
will document the abundance and diversity of pollinators and
natural enemies, comparing pre-installment measures to
post-installment measures. The results from these surveys will be
used in our end-of-project workshop to provide information to
growers on the benefits of installing habitat.

Objective
3
: Hold a workshop for
southeastern growers 

The great majority of respondents
(80.0%) were interested in attending an end-of-project workshop.
At this workshop we will detail the entire process of habitat
installation: from habitat design to the documented benefits.
This will include feedback from our farmer cooperator and
participating farms (where habitat will be installed) to the
audience. This workshop will also provide an opportunity for
growers to ask any questions they have and address any
reservations or barriers they are experiencing that might limit
their ability to implement habitat. The goal of this workshop is
to close the gap between interest and knowledge on how to conduct
conservation efforts, such as adding ecologically beneficial
habitat into agricultural areas.

Project objectives from proposal:

Objective 1.
Create and install a habitat
design for southeastern agroecosystems

To create a regionally relevant
habitat design that supports wildlife and meets grower needs, we
will use our team’s expertise. Our team has firsthand experience
with habitat design, installation, and management in North
Carolina. We will also consult with relevant literature in plant
selection (e.g. Mallinger et al., 2019; Roos, 2023) and design
elements (e.g. Seth Carley & Spafford, 2021; NCBG, 2019). As
mentioned above, we will use the survey results to guide our
habitat design.

Once a design is finalized, we
will install the habitat on 3 North Carolina farms. We will use
funds from this project to provide participating farms with the
necessary plants, plugs, and seeds. We will detail site
preparation, plant placement, plant density and spacing, and
maintenance protocols. We will assist growers on the initial
installation and provide further guidance on management as
needed.

By creating a habitat design we
address the 34.3% of survey respondents that reported needing
more help or information before they could install habitat on
their farm. By providing the plants, plugs, and seeds to
participating farms we help alleviate the 57.3% of respondents
that report access to resources as a major barrier to installing
habitat, and directly address the 5.6% of respondents that
reported limited access to seeds and plants.  

Objective
2
: Document the
benefits of habitat installation

We will conduct pre- and
post-habitat installation insect surveys to document that our
habitat design is providing ecosystem services to farms. The
pre-installation survey will be done in Year 1, and the
post-installation survey will be done in Year 2.

For both surveys, we will follow
similar sampling methods to those outlined in Levenson & Tarpy,
2023, which includes two sampling methods: active hand netting
and passive pan trapping. Active hand netting involves using an
insect net to collect insects and transferring collected samples
into storage containers. Pan trapping involves using small
plastic cups painted yellow, blue, and white. The paint used on
the cups reflects specific UV wavelengths that attract insects.
The cups are filled with soapy water, which breaks the water’s
surface tension, and acts as a passive collection tool for
insects. By using both methods together, we will collect a more
thorough sample of the insect community as netting collects
larger bodied insects and pan traps collect smaller, harder to
detect insects. Both sampling methods will be used once a month
for 4 months during peak season of the habitat (expected May -
September, depending on geographic location). 

Pan traps will be placed around
the edge of the habitat installation area. Traps will be placed
out in the field at 9 AM each day and left out for 6 hours
(collected at 3 PM). The contents of the traps will be stored at
-20 C until further processing. Hand netting will be conducted
for a total of 1 hour each month, along a haphazard transect
within the habitat installation area. Each netting survey will
consist of two 30-minute surveys - one in the morning and one in
the afternoon. This will enable us to account for temporal
differences in insect abundance and diversity across time of day.
While netting is most commonly used to document bee pollinators,
in this context we will collect any flying insect in order to
evaluate all ecosystem services provided by this habitat. Each
collected specimen will be placed in individual tubes and stored
at -20 C until further processing. All collected specimens will
be identified down to the lowest taxonomic level possible at the
Specialty Crops Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management
Laboratory at NC State University.

Objective
3
: Hold a workshop for
southeastern growers 

At the end of Year 2, we will
hold a workshop for southeastern growers to outline our findings.
We will share the details of our habitat design, including what
plants were selected and why, installation protocols, and if
there’s any changes to our recommendations after the installation
experience. We will also provide information on local sources of
seeds, plants, and plugs, as well as general guidelines for how
our habitat design can be adapted for specific needs. At the
workshop, our grower cooperator and participating farms where
habitat was installed will share their experience with installing
the habitat. They will share any lessons learned and any updated
recommendations. We will also share our findings from the pre-
and post-installation insect surveys. While these results will be
preliminary, as the habitat will be at most one year old at the
time of the post-survey, we will discuss the benefits growers can
expect from the habitat in the long-term. The workshop will close
with an open discussion portion where attendees will have the
opportunity to ask any questions they have as well as address any
reservations or barriers to installing habitat they may be
experiencing. The information in this workshop will help address
concerns that growers reported in our southeastern US grower
survey such as limited information (34.3%) and understanding of
habitat benefits (19.5%), as well as needing help understanding
how to install habitat and where to find resources
(14.8%).

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.