Wildlife Friendly Agriculture

Can we modify agricultural landscapes to enhance habitat for wildlife, in ways that also benefit the farm?

Burrowing owls in agricultural field in Yolo County, CA.  Photo: Ryan Barbour

Turning California into a global agricultural powerhouse has come at a significant cost to natural ecosystems and wildlife that once thrived in fertile places like the Central and Salinas Valleys. Production agriculture over the last several decades has become increasingly intensive and left little if any room for the natural habitats that sustain biodiversity and provide natural services to people.

Even small patches of habitat within farmlands can provide important places for wildlife to breed, move through the landscape, and find shelter from predators. Those patches can also provide valuable benefits for farmers, like water filtration services that improve water quality and reduce erosion, pollination services from native bees, and pest control services that may reduce the need for pesticides.

Restoring natural diversity in these landscapes can be done in ways that also work for farmers. But there are several important questions to consider. Are there trade-offs between nature restoration and agricultural productivity? How effective can restoration at the farm’s edge be in providing habitat for native diversity? Which habitats can provide high value natural services to the farmers? What other management practices in the farm fields themselves can be used to lessen the impacts of farming on lands and waters beyond the farm?

Applying our Science

Conservancy scientists and partners have been addressing these questions in several ways. We’ve been conducting studies to understand how the diversity and abundance of wildlife are affected by having natural habitats in the system. The science is showing that the diversity and abundance of native bird species is greater with even small, linear natural “hedgerows” along farm field edges.

Conservancy scientists, in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have also investigated whether natural habitats create human food safety problems. This research showed that food safety policies that incentivized the removal of natural habitat were not actually improving food safety. In fact, natural habitats had very little effect on the prevalence of food-borne disease organisms. Moreover, the loss of natural habitats threatened the pest control services that nature provides.

Conservancy scientists are also evaluating the potential ecosystem service benefits of alternative farmland management practices, and the barriers and opportunities for farmers of implementing those practices. A Conservancy collaboration with Cambridge University has showed that, while several ecosystem service benefits are expected and in some cases realized (e.g. higher crop yield, pollination, improved soil quality with fewer impacts to water quality), there are significant gaps in our understanding of how well alternative management practices work and the potential trade-offs among the different services. Because the costs and trade-offs from these practices can also be barriers to adoption by farmers, scientists from the Conservancy and Cornell University are collaborating to investigate how farmers make decisions about which practices to use.

Together these studies will help us design strategies that can incentivize on-farm practices that benefit nature – and that in turn benefit the farm.


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