Pest Watch

Smell the Flowers

(Progressive Farmer image by Pamela Smith)

Planting native wildflowers is a good way to add some beauty to your property, but could it also add to your bottom line? A Montana State University research team builds a case in specific situations for profitable poppies in a recent issue of the "Journal of Economic Entomology."

Growing crops in monoculture lowers biodiversity infield and the surrounding habitat. Insects can quickly invade recently planted corn, for example, while natural enemies arrive slowly, leaving the crop more vulnerable to damaging pests.

Researchers contend that incorporating natural plants in farm fields could build diverse and ecologically stable landscapes that benefit growers. Studies show that a greater diversity of plants can lead to fewer insects feeding on the crop, while attracting and retaining natural enemies in the area. But, these benefits don't always translate into increased yields or lower pest pressure.

BUSY BEES

Enter the team of Casey Delphia, Kevin O'Neill and Laura Burkle at Montana State University. Previously, they documented that wildflower strips planted alongside vegetable crops could support a diverse number of native pollinators. More than 200 species of wild bees visited the strips and adjacent vegetable crops, showing that farms could boost local biodiversity with little cost to land. Wild bees are often more efficient pollinators than domestic species, bringing with them greater value.

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However, to build a stronger case for adoption, the team wanted to show farmers that growing native plants could also be profitable. Keep in mind, though, that they used a scenario that many growers would find difficult to adopt.

The Montana State group planted small strips (about 355 square feet) of native wildflowers in vegetable fields, intending to sell the seeds for both retail and wholesale markets. They tracked the costs associated with seed production, quality management and distribution, and subtracted them from the revenue generated from sales during a three-year period. Their hope was that the sale of wildflower seeds would offset the revenue lost from reduced vegetable production.

The team calculated an average profit of $20,000 per farm over three years when growing native wildflowers for retail. Most of the costs occurred in the first year of the study (wildflowers were perennial and did not require replanting), with labor for weeding and harvesting seeds the primary recurring cost. Strips produced a small volume of sellable seed for the wholesale market and a net loss of $4,000 per farm across the study period.

Growers would need to plant larger strips and/or develop more efficient seed-harvesting methods to meet the demands of wholesale markets. But, the authors are optimistic that with better management practices, profits from both retail and wholesale markets could improve.

Adopting wildflower strips to other crops -- like corn, soybeans or wheat -- is possible, explains lead author Casey Delphia. But, it requires careful consideration of management choices and, of course, a ready market for the seed. Growers must also adjust practices to balance profit motivations with conservation efforts, such as ensuring that strips are placed to minimize pesticide drift, which could kill native pollinators.

With support from programs like the Pollinator Habitat Initiative (CP-42), growers may benefit from greater soil health and other ecosystem services the wildflowers provide. Overall, the Montana State team's work shows that growers can make money under the right scenario by "going green." Or any other wildflower color.

Contact Scott Williams, DTN Entomologist, at scott.williams@dtn.com.

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