Farming with the Wild: An Interview with Jo Ann Baumgartner of the Wild Farm Alliance

In the 1980s Jo Ann Baumgartner worked on a research project growing vegetables with reclaimed waste water that became the forerunner for the use of treated recycled water to irrigate farms in the California Central Coast and Salinas Valley. The experience was formative for her in two ways: she met her lifelong partner, Sam Earnshaw, and her eyes were opened to the profligate use of toxic chemicals to grow food.

Jo Ann and Sam became part of the cadre of pioneering farmers in the emerging organic movement and helped develop California Certified Organic Farmers and the Ecological Farming Association, and when they moved on from farming, they developed parallel careers conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Sam became the foremost advocate of hedgerows on California farms to provide habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects that prey on pests that feed on crops, while Jo Ann became the Executive Director of the Wild Farm Alliance, which promotes agriculture that protects and restores wild nature.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, had a defining influence on Jo Ann’s passion for nature, especially birds. As ED of the Wild Farm Alliance, Baumgartner has been working to show organic farmers how nature can be their ally and how being stewards of biodiversity can actually benefit their farming operations.

Jo Ann Baumgartner was interviewed by Arty Mangan of Bioneers.      

Arty Mangan: Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology, in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, wrote: “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” How do you Interpret that quote?

Jo Ann Baumgartner: Wild Farm Alliance helps growers understand how to integrate nature into their farming, but I often think that humans haven’t been around long enough to fully understand nature. I think that quote is talking about how it takes a really long time to understand the nuances of just one organism, much less all its influences on a mountain. It could take the lifetime of a mountain to fully understand it.

Arty: Most farming is a disaster when it comes to how it affects nature around and downstream from the farm. You help educate and work with farmers to create conditions that increase biodiversity in ways that can actually benefit the farm. How do you define biodiversity?

Jo Ann Baumgartner

Jo Ann: I define it as a community of organisms with species and genetic diversity engaged in ecosystem processes. Not everybody includes ecosystem processes, but I think it’s key because functions can’t be separated from species. A community of organisms and their functions are intertwined. For example, as I get to know birds more, I get a better understanding of how they are shaping our world. Wild Farm Alliance has a new project in which we’re helping growers understand how field-edge habitats support insects that are beneficial to farmers. Both insects and birds are in rapid decline, so providing habitat for them is really important. Insects are the feedstock for many bird species. Different species shape our world. If many of the species that are currently threatened or endangered had already become extinct, our world would be profoundly different. Many of these species have a profound effect on how ecosystems function.

Arty: Can you explain a bit more about why biodiversity is important to agriculture?

Jo Ann: Having a diversity of species of bees, insects and even some birds is a huge boon to pollination. In tropical situations even some mammals have a role in pollination. Biodiversity also helps with pest control. As I mentioned, our work has shown that birds provide pest control and that field-edge habitats attract beneficial predator insects and arthropods. Coyotes help control rodent populations. Some birds also prey on rodents. Those predators are an asset to agriculture. And biodiversity in the vegetation on or around a farm helps prevent erosion; it holds the soil in place. On California farms, fields are often bare, causing valuable topsoil to wash away during rainstorms.

But more farmers are starting to put cover crops on their fields, which helps hold soil in place and enrich it. Biodiverse vegetation on farms also filters out fertilizers from runoff before they pollute waterways, and plants store carbon. Those are just a few examples of why biodiversity is so important in agriculture.

Arty: You mentioned the decline of insects. Why should we worry about having fewer insects?

Jo Ann: Many species of birds feed on insects, and insects are part of the diet of many reptiles and amphibians such as snakes, lizards and salamanders. Insects even constitute a significant portion of the diet of foxes and bears. And, sadly, we are losing so much of the beauty in the world as butterflies disappear. I spoke to an amazing native plant and butterfly scholar, and he said that when he was younger, in the sixties and seventies, he saw all kinds of butterflies that he now very rarely if ever sees. We are losing part of what makes our world so wonderful to live in.

Photo By Joe Kritz

Wild Farm Alliance put up about 250 nest-boxes on farms in the Monterey Bay area. One of those nest boxes had a chickadee in it whose beak was packed full of insects as it was feeding seven little chicks. That chickadee feeds those kids 150 times a day for a couple of weeks. They need to eat a huge number of insects in order to survive. To keep birds alive, we need native plants around farms to provide habitat for insects.

A study on the East Coast that looked at the relationship between birds, caterpillars and native plants found that Carolina Chickadees need a landscape of at least two thirds native plants in order to have a successful brood. Diverse native plants support insects that support birds, and those birds often help farmers by eating Codling Moths and other pest insects that live in fruit and nut trees and damage crops. Native plants are part of our wild farm story. We encourage farmers to put in native plant hedgerows and to conserve their native plant riparian areas and wind breaks.

Arty: Is it hard to convince farmers that birds can be a benefit to them when they see birds eat their seeds or crops?

Jo Ann: Yes, for many years when we spoke to farmers about birds, they only saw them as pests, but since we published the booklet, Supporting Birds and Managing Pest Birds, I don’t hear that as much. And when I do, I try to help the farmer understand that not all birds and not all insects are bad. I ask them which birds they’re having problems with, because often it’s just one species that’s transient, only there for a little while before heading somewhere else. If we want an agricultural system that does not use a lot of toxic materials to grow food, then we need to rely more on nature and birds and beneficial insects to help with pest control.

Chestnut-backed chickadee. Photo by Doug Greenberg

There is solid evidence that many bird species help reduce crop damage and/or increase yields, so why not support the birds if they’re going to help you economically? But for me, it’s more than just about economics, as important as that is. We need, as Leopold wrote back in the 1930s, an ecological conscience. We can’t just assume that everything that’s good for us is good for all the other organisms on the planet. We have to consider the needs of other species as well.

Arty: Dan Imhoff, one of the co-founders of Wild Farm Alliance, has said that the more monocultural and intensive a system is, the more nature seems to be the enemy. How has mainstream agriculture been antagonistic to wild ecosystems?

Jo Ann: Industrial agriculture uses really toxic pesticides. We know that one seed treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide can kill a bird, and birds dig up seeds, right? And we know that those “neonics” also translocate, so those toxins get into flower pollen and can kill bees or affect their nervous systems, and birds have been disoriented and killed by neonics and organophosphates getting into water. Farmers also use a lot of herbicides, so there are no viable habitats on the edges of farms anymore. There are fewer places for birds and other animals to coexist. Things would improve even if farmers just left some weeds, because quite a few weeds have flowers that support pollinators and beneficial insects and provide bird food.

Pollution that runs off of farms ends up in waterways and harms aquatic species. Many of our rivers are now just small ribbons of polluted water with hardly any habitat. Natural riparian areas should be the corridors for wildlife, especially as the planet warms and animals need to move more, but, in most places, there just aren’t enough flowers or shrubs or sufficient connectivity for wildlife to survive.

Why is there a biodiversity crisis? To a large extent, the answer is that our methods of food production destroy it. The industrial food system doesn’t value biodiversity. It’s hard to change the industrial agricultural way of thinking, but we know there’s a better way. Organic and regenerative farmers can grow food in ways that are less harmful and can even be beneficial to nature. 

Hedgerow of deergrass, ceanothus, toyon, coyote brush, manzanita, and sugar bush. Photo by Sam Earnshaw

Arty: Organic farmers are theoretically required to conserve biodiversity and maintain or improve natural resources, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife. How would you assess the enforcement of and the compliance with that requirement?

Jo Ann: That’s tricky to answer because we believe strongly in organic, and we want to support the organic community as best we can, but the fact is that some organic farmers support biodiversity more than others. Several years ago, the Wild Farm Alliance surveyed the majority of organic certifiers in the country and found that there were some certifiers that did nothing in regards to evaluating farms for biodiversity while others did a great job. The organic community is starting to understand that this is part of the regulation and needs to be addressed, but more work has to be done.

The reality is that some organic certifiers’ applications only have one question about how biodiversity is encouraged on the farm, and there’s no real evaluation of it in the certification process. Other certifiers we’ve worked with have expanded their inspection reports to be more comprehensive about evaluating biodiversity. It’s an educational process because some growers are clueless about biodiversity. Certification inspectors can’t tell growers what to do, but, if they’re knowledgeable, they can initiate conversations about biodiversity. They can talk about what they have seen on other farms. 

Arty: When you talk to farmers, what are some of the main principles and practices that you are encouraging them to adopt?

Jo Ann: There are four things: 1. Keep the soil covered with plants. 2. Add native flowering plants. 3. Add structure, not just grasses and forbs, but shrubs and trees. 4. Make it your intention to support the wildlife in our world as much as you can.

Wild Farm Alliance has three major campaigns: Farmland Flyways, Farmland Wildways and Farmland Waterways. We want to see a million nest-boxes and perches put up on farms in the U.S., and we want to see hedgerows to the moon and back, which is equivalent to the 500,000 miles of hedgerows that were once in the UK (sadly, they’ve lost half of them). And Farmland Waterways is about restoring and conserving 100,000 miles of riparian habitat, which is 10% of the river frontage on farms.

More Wild Farm Alliance resources

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.