While walking a piece of North Dakota landscape under a withering summer sun, one’s thoughts turn to moisture—or rather, the lack of it. So when I and other participants in a soil health tour kicked up signs of cool, shady places while traipsing across a hay field, it seemed like a mirage. Green-and-black leopard frogs were zigzagging out of our way, adding life to a field that had not gotten a decent rain in eight weeks. This part of south-central North Dakota is prairie pothole country, but no wetlands were in sight as wheat and corn stretched to the horizon.
“I’ve never seen so many frogs so far from a slough,” said Douglas Miller of the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. “What’s going on there that would bring them so far from cattails?”
When we reached the edge of the field where the couple who farms this land, Todd McPeak and Penny Meeker, were standing, they made it clear we weren’t imagining things. “I hope you didn’t step on any of my leopard frogs,” Meeker said, smiling. We smiled too, and were especially concerned that we hadn’t hurt any frogs after she related a childhood story of using a stripped horse weed to “whip the crap” out of her brother and a cousin when she caught them shooting birds on their family’s dairy farm.
Meeker and McPeak enjoy seeing birds, mammals, and yes, frogs, on the acres they produce grass, hay, cover crops, and beef cattle on. But these critters are also barometers of how the sustainable farming methods the couple use are affecting their business enterprise. As McPeak explains it, more frogs in a field connotes a healthier landscape that retains moisture in the soil more efficiently, which in turn translates into better quality hay and grass that’s drought tolerant. That’s money in the bank when you’re farming in a place that gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year.
Conventional production systems that cover the land with monocultures of corn and soybeans have been a disaster for everything from grassland birds and waterfowl to amphibians and pollinating bees. In Apocalyptic Planet, Craig Childs describes being hard put to find even a couple of spiders and a toad while “camping” in an Iowa cornfield.
But innovators like McPeak and Meeker are proving that productive agriculture and wildlife can occupy the same piece of ground, and in some cases aren’t just tolerating each other, but are mutually beneficial. In this case, the farmers are part of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team, a collaboration of farmers, government conservationists and scientists. Using rotational grazing, diverse plantings of cover crops between the regular cash crop seasons, as well as tillage systems that disturb the soil little, this team is building soil’s biological health. The result has been less erosion and more farm profitability. It turns out healthy soil is also good for wildlife.
“There is no comparison,” said team member Darrell Oswald in reference to how much wildlife is present on his farm since he started building his soil’s microbial universe.
An increasing number of environmentalists are seeing that working farmland can be an ecological positive. I’ve been on farms in northeast Iowa that had, to the delight of an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, developed grazing systems where bobolinks and other troubled grassland species were thriving. Just this summer, I visited a gorgeous stream in southeast Minnesota that was being managed using “flash grazing” of cattle to control invasive plants and establish the kind of deep-rooted grasses that stabilize riparian areas while filtering out contaminants.
“It’s a great relationship—livestock and streams,” said Jeff Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager. On cue, a bluebird swooped over the bubbling waterway while a trout grabbed some air. So much for the old saw that cattle and creeks never, ever are a good mix ecologically.
In 2012 researchers reported that bumblebees, which are key pollinators, preferred visiting cucumbers raised with compost as opposed to those fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers, even though both soils contained the same amount of basic plant nutrients. The study concluded that non-nutritional factors such as microbial interactions might be making the composted cucumbers more bee-friendly.
Wildlife friendly farming practices are not the norm, and producers who strive to diversify their landscape—above and below the surface—don’t get much support from the market or public policy. On the latter front, one bright spot has been the Conservation Stewardship Program, a federal initiative that rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working farmland. It has been extremely popular in states like Iowa and Minnesota the past few years. But as Congress begins finalizing a new five-year Farm Bill this fall, the program faces significant budget cuts: 21 percent and 14 percent in the House and Senate respectively.
If these cuts go though, it will be a shame. They would come at a time when innovative farmers are linking healthy soil, healthy land and healthy bottom lines, and CSP adds that extra nudge their neighbors need to make key agro-ecological transitions. Too bad Congress can’t connect the dots as well as Todd McPeak does.
“From bees to badgers to beef, I see it all working together,” he said as herds of frogs swarmed across his land.