Wildlife cooperatives boost conservation and habitat

Capital News Service

LANSING – According to research studies on their perception about land use, many farmers’ attitudes are still rooted in using their private land to grow crops, focusing on increasing productivity.

Fewer of them would think about taking conservation actions, the studies found.

However, what if these activities are not wildlife-friendly? What if these types of land management hurt wildlife habitat?

“There are some people who don’t have interest in wildlife. Some agriculture practices and different land use practices are not good for pheasants,” said AI Stewart, a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) upland game bird specialist.

But landowners have the right to manage their property as they choose, he said.

Anna Mitterling of Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) has worked for more than three years to broaden the perceptions of landowners and break land-use stereotypes.

Mitterling, the organization’s wildlife cooperative coordinator, promotes a comprehensive program to assist landowners in better land management and planning for future needs.  

The Michigan Wildlife Cooperative is a voluntary conservation effort supported by the DNR, the Quality Deer Management Association, Pheasants Forever and MUCC.

A wildlife cooperative gathers private landowners, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to enhance their local wildlife and habitat. The participants share their wildlife experiences with each other, accumulate more knowledge of wildlife from activities,  improve relationships with neighbors and have a chance to use land management techniques on a bigger scale.

Currently, Michigan has 120 wildlife cooperatives, a number that has been increasing since 1991, according to the MUCC.

“The ones I work with are often larger over time, with 25 or so members, and 3,000 -12,000 acres of combined properties,” Mitterling said.

Deer cooperatives and pheasant cooperatives are two of the major types in Michigan.

Deer cooperatives focus on the quality of deer herds. Pheasant cooperatives work to create and enhance grassland habitats.

“In our deer cooperative, we have an annual buck pole, we do a youth deer pole on the weekend of the youth hunt and we work with the DNR to put a plane in the air to look for poachers,” said Harold Wolf, the president of the Southern Mecosta Whitetail Management Association.

Wolf said cooperatives are good for the people who join: He got to know his neighbors better, felt pride in improving the deer herd and shared happy experiences and memories with family and friends.

As for pheasant cooperatives, Lake Hudson Pheasant Cooperative leader David Ames said, “Most of us are hunters. We focus on creating grassland habitat pheasant can survive in.”

His cooperative is based in Lenawee County.

Despite such benefits, some landowners decide not to take part.

“The biggest challenge for us is finding private landowners that want to participate,” Ames said.

One reason for landowner concern is the size of their property. Many think their land is too small to support conservation activities, Ames said. “A small amount of land, like 20 acres, would be big enough that we can help them to do something on it,” he added.

Ames also stressed the significance and necessity of wildlife and land use education.

In terms of the land use stereotypes, Ames suggested more outreach and said that elementary education about wildlife conservation may lead to more changes in property owners’ attitudes and land use stereotypes.

Rick Lucas, a wildlife and forestry professional with the Mecosta/Osceola Lake Conservation District in Reed City, said, “The common denominator of every natural resource and conservation issue across the state is people.”

Sara Kross, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at California State University, Sacramento, researched the impact of farmers’ perceptions on their conservation activities.

She found a positive relationship between their perceptions and conservation efforts. For instance, general farmers thought perching birds and bats significantly help control insect pests, while fruit farmers view them negatively.

Accordingly, fruit farmers are less likely to try to protect perching birds and bats, Kross’ study said.

Dead cow ‘subsidy’ may bring more wolf-human conflicts

Capital News Service

LANSING — Unburied cow carcasses can lead to conflict between wolves and people, according to a recent study.

The study of wolves in the Upper Peninsula found that nearly a quarter of the diet of wolves consists of cattle in areas near dairy and beef farms.

It’s not that wolves prey on livestock, said Tyler Petroelje, a doctoral candidate at Mississippi State University who led the study. Instead, it’s a result of wolves eating at dumps where farmers put dead livestock.

Experts call that an unintentional wildlife food subsidy.

The practice is illegal in Michigan, according to the 1982 law, Bodies of Dead Animals. That law requires burying animal carcasses at least 2 feet deep within 24 hours of an animal’s death.

Many livestock producers don’t know about the rule. Plus, the rendering process to properly dispose of carcasses is expensive, so they leave dead cows unburied, Petroelje said.

Farmers leave them on top of the ground where predators such as wolves scavenge for an easy meal.

Petroelje discovered that wolves were feeding at these sites after using GPS collars to track them as part of a larger study examining how predators impact fawn survival.

The research team investigated sites with a large number of location clusters from the GPS collared wolves. Occasionally these locations were carcass dumps on farms.

They discovered that carcass dumps directly changed the wolves’ behavior. Wolves that eat at them are less active and don’t travel as far, he said.

They also found that wolves preyed less on deer when supplementing their diet with livestock.

That’s a problem if wolves get used to eating the carcasses and start attacking livestock, Petroelje said. The wolves remain in smaller areas because they don’t need to hunt as intensely. That means more of them can be sustained.

This may seem like a win for wolf population recovery in Michigan, but there are negative consequences, experts say.

If wolves shrink their range, that creates room for other predator species, like coyotes, said Dean Beyer, a wildlife researcher with the Department of Natural Resources.

Petroelje said this increased predator presence can put pressure on prey species such as white-tailed deer.

And it could mean that wolves come in closer contact with people. This can lead to wolf “removal” by mandatory harvest or by landowners who feel threatened.

“If we want to minimize human-wildlife conflict, these carcass dumps are a good thing to think about,” Petroelje said.

  The solution? Petroelje suggests simply explaining the importance of proper carcass disposal.

Most farmers he met during the study were curious about what the wolves were doing on their property. In one instance a farmer buried a carcass after learning of the concerns about them, Petroelje said.

“It’s just education. They aren’t trying to violate the law,” said Jim Bowes, the deputy director of the animal industry division of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The department reminded livestock owners of the disposal regulations for carcasses in a Michigan State University Extension newsletter.

That was after receiving an unusually high number of claims from farmers that wolves had preyed on their livestock. The department also heard some people were hunting over livestock remains, using them as bait, Bowes said.

No one is examining livestock owners’ properties for carcass pits, he said. If local law enforcers receive complaints of large predation on livestock, someone may look at the farmer’s disposal practices and educate them about best practices.

Carcass dumps aren’t the only way humans can impact wildlife behavior. Other food subsidies such as bird feeders or food waste in trash and landfills can affect feeding habits.

Petroelje said food subsidies are any food from humans that is accessible to wildlife, either intentionally or unintentionally.

And Beyer said, “Overall, this research is just alerting us that as we continue to alter landscapes through human activities, it might roll into how it affects the ecosystem overall.”

Lucy Schroeder writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Kestrels thrive in cherry orchards, and return favor

Capital News Service

LANSING — New homes may help save a declining bird species and, at the same time, protect economically vital cherry crops from orchard-damaging enemies.

That’s the conclusion of scientists who placed nest boxes in Leelanau County cherry orchards in an effort to support more breeding populations of the American kestrel.

The kestrel — or sparrowhawk — is the smallest, most colorful and most common falcon in North America but faces “significant and widespread population declines,” according to the researchers. They describe it as “a species of conservation concern.”

The population of kestrels is declining about 1 percent a year nationally and in Michigan, said Rachelle Roake, the conservation science coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society.

“They’re not doing that great,” although they’re not listed as a threatened or endangered species, Roake said.

Major factors in that decline include development that removes natural nesting cavities and snags, as well as climate change-related habitat loss on migration routes and in wintering grounds, according to researchers Catherine Lindell and Megan Shave of Michigan State University’s Department of Integrative Biology. They published their nest box findings in two new studies.

The shrinking number of kestrels is bad news for Michigan tart and sweet cherry growers whose crops are vulnerable to the grasshoppers, meadow voles and robins that kestrels like to chow down on. They also scare away robins, cedar waxwings and other fruit-loving birds, Lindell said.

Other crops, including apples, benefit as well from the presence of kestrels, she said. For example, voles eat the bark of young cherry and other fruit trees, killing them.

Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station near Traverse City, said it’s tough for cherry and grape growers to keep fruit-eating birds out. They’ve tried a variety of measures including balloons, sprays, nets and squawk boxes, all of which have major weaknesses.

The nest box project was “pretty neat” research,” Rothwell said. “It offers growers something they can do, something proactive.”

Lindell said sweet cherries are kestrels’ prime beneficiaries because they ripen at the same time as kestrels are nesting. Kestrels in Northern Michigan later migrate, usually to the southern United States.

Cherries are big business in Michigan, which leads the country in producing Montmorency tart cherries and ranks 4th in sweet cherry production, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Overall, the state accounts for 70-75 percent of Montmorency tart cherries and 20 percent of sweet cherries production nationally.

As for filling the birds’ menu, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology says, “Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place.”

The MSU scientists installed 23 nest boxes in 2012-2015 next to or within cherry orchards on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Many were placed near the pastures, open fields and row crops where kestrels like to hunt.

The entrances faded southeastward to encourage kestrel occupancy and the survival of hatchlings.

The researchers monitored the boxes with pole-mounted cameras and opened the boxes to count eggs, hatchlings and fledglings.

Lindell said a similar nest box study is underway at blueberry farms in Western Michigan.

In Leelanau County, kestrels laid eggs in all 23 boxes and had “consistently high reproductive rates, indicating that the orchards and surrounding areas provide suitable habitat for successful kestrel breeding and fledgling production,” one of their new studies said.

“The results suggest that orchard nest boxes have the potential to sustain or increase the breeding kestrel population in the region while increasing kestrel predation of crop-damaging prey in and around cherry orchards,” the study in the Journal of Raptor Research said.

Their other study, published in the journal PLOS One, said, “Our results could encourage additional farmers to install and maintain nest boxes in fruit-growing regions where agricultural practices create open hunting habitat for kestrels.”

There were a few failures as well. Eggs in several boxes were abandoned because of competition from European starlings or another reason, and nestlings in a fourth box were killed by unknown assailants in a nighttime attack.

Meanwhile, cherry growers face other problems that kestrels can’t solve, according to Rothwell. For example, deer browse on trees, and bucks can kill trees by rubbing up against them. A fungal pathogen called cherry leaf spot can be devastating as well.

State program boosts school nutrition with local foods

Capital News Service

LANSING — More Michigan students can enjoy fruits and vegetables from local farms because of the expansion of a state program that supports buying them.

The 10 Cents A Meal program is administered by the Department of Education.The state offers up to 10 cents per meal for schools to purchase Michigan grown or processed food.

Sixteen school districts joined the program its first year in 2016, serving more than 3.8 millions meals to 48,000 students, according to the program’s legislative report.

The state recently announced that 32 school districts will receive the funding this year. More than 90,000 students will benefit from it.

Almost 80 schools applied for the program this year, according to the Department of Education. Criteria for choosing them includes whether they are near farms, distributors and food hubs.

The grants are for foods such as local fruit, vegetables or dry beans, said Diane Golzynski, the interim state child nutrition director at the department.

“We’re just very excited about this program,” Golzynski said. “It’s really exciting and we’ve seen Michigan farms be able to get additional funding to help them grow and provide more products to local schools.”

This is the fifth year that Traverse City schools have participated in the program because it started there as a pilot program.

The Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District partnered with the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities to launch the initial version, said Tom Freitas, food service director for the district.

The local program prompted Sens. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, and Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s K-12, School Aid, Education Subcommittee, to initiate a statewide program two years ago.

“We are pleased that this is something that is being seen as a win-win by legislators for investing in the health of our kids and the health of Michigan’s economy, and we’re pleased that it is getting bipartisan support,” said Diane Conners, senior policy specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit organization based in Traverse City.

“The 10 Cents a Meal program is helping expose children to locally-grown produce options in the school setting and is creating partnerships between school districts and their local agricultural producers,” Hansen said in a news release.

And students apparently notice.

“Kids can tell differences. When the food service ran out of Michigan apples, they can tell the difference and say ‘what’s going on with the apple?’” Conners said.

Freitas agrees: “If you get a Honeycrisp apple versus a Red Delicious apple, they just like Honeycrisp much better, which is more of a local apple.”

Traverse City Area Public Schools receives produce almost everyday, Freitas said.

Even in the winter, when there is nothing growing in Michigan, schools still have supplies of frozen cherries, blueberries, strawberries and apples from local processors.

James Bardenhagen is the owner of Bardenhagen Farms. His farm and his co-ops sell apples, potatoes, grapes, apricots, nectarines, plums, leafy greens, carrots, kohlrabi to schools in Leelanau County and Traverse City.

Kids now want to eat at school rather than bring their own lunch, said Bardenhagen.

10 Cents A Meal means a new market for him.

“It’s a great program, and it benefits the farmers and school and the kids,” he said.

“Our hope is to get it across all of Michigan,” Freitas said. “Every time it grows a little bit, that is a good thing not just to schools but the Michigan economy and the farmers.”

Districts now in the program include Alanson Public Schools, Bear Lake Schools, Benzie County Central Schools, Boyne Falls Public School District, East Jordan Public Schools, Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools, Glen Lake Community Schools, Harbor Springs Public School District, Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools, Manton Consolidated Schools, Onekama Consolidated Schools, Pellston Public Schools, Public Schools of Petoskey, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Belding Area Schools, Coopersville Area Public School District, Grand Haven Area Public Schools, Hart Public School District, Holland Public Schools, Lowell Area Schools, Montague Area Public Schools, Saugatuck Public Schools, Shelby Public Schools, Thornapple Kellogg School District, Whitehall District Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Bedford Public Schools, Dexter Community School District, Hillsdale Community Schools, Jackson Public Schools, Monroe Public Schools, Ypsilanti Community Schools.

CNS community:

Harbor Springs Public School District, Public Schools of Petoskey, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Holland Public Schools, Glen Lake Community Schools, Kaleva Norman Dickson School District


California fires will have little impact on Michigan wine sales

Capital News Service

LANSING — The full impact of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country is not yet clear.

But even if the devastation is severe, Michigan wine producers say it could be a few years before they see any effect, if at all.

Michigan is among the top 10 wine-producing states in the country. Wine sales and grape plantings have been steadily growing for years, said Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council in Lansing.

What happened in California “really isn’t going to have an impact on Michigan wineries,” Bush said. Most Michigan wineries use grapes grown in their own vineyards or elsewhere in the state.

Michigan has 132 wineries and 3,050 acres planted with grapes for wine, she said. “That number has increased for the last 25 years. It increases every year.”

Michigan, especially areas within 25 or so miles of Lake Michigan, offers an ideal climate for grapes, she said. That’s why wineries keep popping up on that side of the state.

The growing number of wineries isn’t  a boon just to Michigan’s agricultural economy, but also to the state’s tourism industry as millions of visitors flock to wineries and wine-tasting rooms, Bush said.

“We have all this water, all this scenery,” she said. That makes Michigan’s vineyards “a great place for tourism.”

Eddie O’Keefe, president of the Chateau Grand Traverse vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, said the devastation in California “raises a lot of awareness, but it doesn’t directly affect us. I wouldn’t say we are competing on a head-to-head basis.”

Bad weather in northern Michigan hurt grape production in 2014 and 2015, O’Keefe said. But since then, business has been rebounding, he said.

“Sales seem to be very strong, across the board,” said O’Keefe, whose family-owned business has been making wine since 1974.

The family owns about 120 acres of vineyards and buys grapes from another 100 acres, all on the peninsula.

On average, the winery produces 25 to 30 different wines, which are distributed throughout the Midwest and East Coast, he said.

Chateau Grand Traverse also operates an inn and a wine-tasting room.

“Every Saturday in October is absolutely the busiest time of the year,” O’Keefe said.

Laurie Stabile, owner of the Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey, said if grapevines in California were destroyed in the fires, it could take growers there three to five years to replant, grow and harvest the grapes and get wine back on the shelves.

But because most Michigan wineries grow their own grapes, the impact of the California fires on Michigan’s wine business will be minimal, Stabile said.

Stabile said her business will continue to expand.

“We’re growing, we’ve been growing all along. You can’t make money if you’re not growing,” she said.

Mackinaw Trail Winery grows grapes on about 70 acres, she said. In addition to its winery, it has five tasting rooms, a cider-making facility, a brewery and an event center.

The Legislature established the 11-member Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council w to promote Michigan’s wine and wine grape-growing industries. The council’s website says new Michigan wineries are starting up every year, wine grape acreage continues to grow and sales of Michigan wines are increasing.

California is the top wine-producing state in the country, making about 90 percent of U.S. wine, according to the National Association of American Wineries in Washington, D.C..

The other top 10 wine-producing states, in order, are Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Vermont, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Texas.

The rankings are based on 2014 figures, the latest available, the wine association said.

California has about 1,200 wineries in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, the regions most heavily affected by the wildfires, but fewer than 10 have been destroyed or heavily damaged, said the Wine Institute, which represents wineries and related businesses in California.

The three counties represent about 12 percent of California’s wine grape production, the institute said.

Holiday season underway for Christmas tree growers

Capital News Service

LANSING — The holiday season is set to begin for Michigan’s Christmas tree growers, who are hoping to at least match last year’s sales.

By the end of October, Michigan tree farmers will be harvesting trees and shipping them to stores and Christmas tree lots in several states. That’s all in preparation for the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the Christmas tree-buying season.

“The day after Thanksgiving, we will open the doors and there will be people waiting in line,” said Mel Koelling, who with his wife Laurie owns and operates Tannenbaum Farms in Mason, south of Lansing. “We are always optimistic.”

Koelling has been growing and selling Christmas trees for about 40 years. In that time, he said, sales have steadily increased.

About 80 to 100 of the farm’s 160 acres are planted with Christmas trees, and nearly all will be sold to individuals, primarily customers who want to cut their own trees, Koelling said.

“We certainly promote the experience,” he said. “We try to make it into an enjoyable, memorable experience.”

It is not unusual to see two or three generations show up together to get a tree, Koelling added. He encourages customers to make the selection of a tree a family tradition because Christmas is the “most significant of all American holidays.”

Also preparing for the season is Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, which  owns and leases a total of 7,000 acres. Dutchman, owned by Joel Hoekwater and Chris Maciborski, is considered the largest Christmas tree farm in Michigan and sells nearly all of its trees to the wholesale market, said Pam Vanderwal, its office manager.

She said the farm expects an increase in sales this year, in part due to Christmas tree shortages in North Carolina and on the West Coast. Workers at the farm, which is near Cadillac, already are busy preparing for the upcoming Christmas season.

“We are in full gear here now, taking orders, trying to figure out how many trees we need,” Vanderwal said.

According to its website, the farm started by selling one variety, Scotch pine, at a farmers market in 1972. Today it offers nine varieties of cut trees, ranging from 3 feet to 50 feet tall.

Dutchman Farms also offers balled and container-grown evergreens, seedlings, wreaths and other Christmas greenery.

Tannenbaum and Dutchman are among the many farms that place Michigan third in the nation in the number of Christmas trees harvested, supplying about 1.7 million fresh trees to the national market each year, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association.

Michigan also grows and sells more than nine major Christmas tree species on a wholesale level, which is more species than any other state, the association said.

In all, Michigan has about 27,000 acres in commercial Christmas tree production, with an annual net value of more than $27 million.

The industry makes an additional $1.3 million in the sales of wreaths, cut boughs, garland and other related items, according to the association. And, for every Christmas tree harvested, Michigan growers plant three new trees for future harvests.

While there will be plenty of trees for available for holiday decorating, the association warns that particular varieties might be hard to come by.

Amy Start, executive director of the 172-member Durand-based industry association, said years ago, Scotch pine Christmas trees were the top sellers in Michigan, but they have since been edged out by the increasingly popular Fraser firs. In fact, the Frasers are a little too popular.

“Fraser firs will be hard to get,” Start said. “There’s not enough to harvest.”

Tannenbaum Farms’ Koelling, who was a forestry professor at Michigan State University for 35 years, said about 25 percent of Michigan’s  growers produce trees for the wholesale market, shipping trees to stores and lots as far away as the Gulf Coast.

Most of those growers are in the less populated areas of the state, and together they produce about 75 percent of the trees sold in Michigan each year.

The majority of tree farms, he said, are in the more populated parts of the state, sell mostly to individual customers. However, they account for only about 25 percent of the  trees sold in the state each year.

Around the country, some 350 million Christmas trees currently are growing, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. The average growing time of a Christmas tree is seven years.

The national association says the top Christmas tree-producing states, in order, are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Michigan farmers encouraged to help fight water pollution

Capital News Service

LANSING — Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers, including those in Michigan, to fight water pollution in the Great Lakes region.

The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland.

The runoff has forced national, regional and local agencies, organizations and universities to collaborate on a solution. Their goal: convince more farmers across the Great Lakes region to implement sustainable farming practices.

That’s not always easy, said Great Lakes Commission Program Director Victoria Pebbles.

“It’s very, very difficult because farmers are proud, they’re private and they feel like the finger’s being pointed at them,” she said. “And most of these people are honest people and hardworking people who are just trying to do their best.”

Interest from farmers is substantial, said Brian Buehler, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Michigan. But they often need help bearing the financial burden.

“Producers have been doing this for a long time, and they’re tried and true practices, so getting anyone to change is, it’s a challenge,” Buehler said. “They need to see it makes economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

Among the programs that will be assessed to determine best methods at reducing agricultural runoff is the Saginaw River watershed.

“I think the farmers realize that they can have a big impact,” said Ben Thelen, a district conservationist with the Saginaw Conservation District. “And you know, a lot of them want to do the right thing.”

Farmers in the Saginaw River watershed used to compete for conservation grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thelen said. A waiting list formed.

Farmers still compete for funds, but the Saginaw River watershed’s priority designation narrowed the competitive pool and allowed more farmers to make changes, he said.

The Great Lakes Commission begins a two-year study in November, looking to channel federal sustainable practices subsidy dollars more efficiently into the hands of county officials and the pockets of farmers. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has put more than $100 million into those pockets over the past six years, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

In addition to the Saginaw River watershed, the commission will assess programs in three other watersheds: Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River; New York’s Genesee River; and the Maumee River, which winds through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The practices of many farmers in all four watersheds have been the subject of prior studies, and the commission also has access to data submitted annually by each initiative-funded project.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to continue funding the restoration initiative, despite President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out a its $300 million allocation from the federal budget. Deliberation over the possible budget cut continues in the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s Pebbles said battling algal blooms and its resulting poor water quality has been a main focus for the initiative since it launched in 2012, funding more than 90 programs to reduce farm runoff. Problems created by the blooms are serious: In 2014, algae blooms tainted tap water in Toledo, Ohio, causing shutoffs for 500,000 residents.

The bulk of the work comes from local governments like the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s part of the Lower Fox River watershed and is just outside of Green Bay. Like much of the Great Lakes, the bay is plagued by algal blooms — killing fish, forcing beach closings and damaging the local economy.

Runoff reduction won’t happen without large-scale buy-in from the farmers, said Greg Baneck, a county conservationist with 14 years under his belt in Outagamie.

“Basically, we are the local delivery method for getting the conservation on the ground,” Baneck said. “That’s the only way we’re getting down to the water quality standards, is if we have the funding for the boots on the ground.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped immensely on that front, he said. It allows the county to employ 12 full-time conservation staffers, up from seven. That makes it easier to meet directly with farmers.

Initiative funding has also made it cheaper for farmers to implement watershed-friendly practices, Baneck said. The county shares the cost of things like seeds for cover crops that keep the soil packed after harvest when fields would otherwise be brown and bare. It has also bought expensive conservation-friendly equipment that is loaned to farmers.

Outagamie County loans out its crimper roller, a machine that crushes and kills cover crops, clearing the way for planting and creating a protective bed over the seed. The decomposing stalks then fertilize the seed.  

Farmers can also cost-share installment of drainage tiles, which help regulate the amounts of runoff.

Baneck said there’s been a mindset change.

“Most farmers want to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can show them the financial benefit of it, that’s huge.

“Bottom line, everyone wants to still make a profit and help the environment, and that’s what we’re showing them.”

As more farmers see their neighbors adopt new practices, the momentum builds, Baneck said.

Collaboration and federal funding has also aided county officials in the Genesee River watershed in New York.

Water quality-related problems have persisted there for years, said Molly Cassatt, district manager of the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Her district has partnered with 11 others to form the Genesee River Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts. The coalition crosses state lines, with one county located in Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to work together so that these projects aren’t small and scattered, but really address the worst areas of the watershed,” Cassatt said.

And with programs “saturated with money” from federal sources, she said, adoption of conservation practices has hastened as farmers no longer have to wait long periods until they’re able to sign up for cost-sharing programs.

That increased buy-in from farmers is what the Great Lakes Commission is seeking.

Pebbles said, “What we want to know is, what’s changing behavior in the long term? If the money went away tomorrow, would they continue to implement these conservation practices?”

The study’s core team is composed of officials from the commission, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. The commission will also assemble an advisory team composed of county officials from those watersheds.

Steven Maier is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.

Dry summer, hot September stress farmers

Capital News Service

LANSING — The record-breaking temperatures in late September combined with the near- drought like conditions throughout the summer is drying out Michigan crops and cows.  

On the plus side: the heat produces better wine.

“With the heat we’ve had, and we’ve only gotten about six-tenths of an inch of rain since July, it’s only making things drier,” said Matt Cary, an Alma soybean farmer.

These hot, dry conditions cause soybeans to mature earlier, according to Mark Seamon, the research coordinator with the  Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee.

“The heat and the dry weather sped up maturity, which means farmers can harvest earlier,” he said. “But it’s also causing the beans to be drier.”

That’s a problem that could cut into profits.

Nearly 30 percent of Michigan experienced abnormally dry conditions by the end of September, and 3 percent was hit with moderate drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The weather has pushed soybean harvests up by a couple of weeks, said Kate Thiel, a field crops specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. But growers are ready.

“Farmers are the ultimate risk-takers,” she said. “There are so many elements out of their control, like the weather. They have to be prepared for anything.”

Usually the soybean harvest runs from the beginning to the middle of October, Cary said. “We’re one and a half to two weeks ahead of previous years.”  

Dave Cheney, a farmer from Mason, began harvesting Sept. 22. “This is the earliest our farm has ever started harvesting,” he said.

The optimal moisture level for soybeans is right around 13 percent, Thiel said. Too  much moisture and farmers have to pay to dry their beans so they don’t get moldy.

But if they are too dry, it will take more beans to make up a 60 pound bushel. That cuts into profits.

High temperatures in late September could reduce the moisture by as much as 2 percent in a day, Thiel said. That creates a short window for farmers to harvest.

Soybeans are sold by weight — one bushel weighs 60 pounds, Seamon said. The more soybeans it takes to reach 60 pounds, the fewer bushels a farmer can produce and sell, resulting in a loss of revenue.

“Some of the ones that are ready are too dry,” Cheney said. “They’re coming out at 9 or 10 percent.”

He said that can equate to a $10 to $15 loss per acre.

Carry expects his yield to suffer.

“Last year I had between 60 and 62 bushels per acre,” he said. “This year I’ll be happy with 40 to 43.”

Dairy farmers are also hurting.

“The heat makes cows lethargic and their appetite wanes,” said Ken Nobis, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association. “When they don’t eat as much, they don’t produce as much milk.”

He estimated the decline in milk production to bottom out at nearly 8 percent. Production should return with cooler weather, he said.

The news isn’t all bad. Vineyards and wineries have benefited from the late season heat.

“As a grape grower, I’m delighted,” said Charles Edson, owner and winemaker at Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery. “Grapes need a certain amount of heat to ripen. We had a cool summer on the Leelanau Peninsula, so the hot temperatures really moved it along.”

Cheney, who operates a farm that’s been in his family for generations, said things could be much worse for soybean farmers. It’s better to have too little rain than too much rain, he said.

“A dry year will scare you,” he said. “But a wet year will starve you.”

Up north, sustainability is everywhere

Capital News Service  

LANSING — What do a trail system linking Northwest Michigan communities, a small-scale organic vegetable farm that supplies local restaurants with fresh produce, citizen-scientists alert for invasive aquatics, apple researchers and critics of an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac have in common?

All are part of a drive for environmental sustainability and all involve some form of community engagement.

As Michigan State University’s Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism, I was part of a recent Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project (SMEP) study tour in the Cadillac-Traverse City-Leelanau Peninsula area.

Other study tour participants were doctoral students and faculty from a range of departments:  Community Sustainability; Philosophy; Fisheries & Wildlife; Journalism; Planning, Design & Construction; and Agricultural, Food & Resource Economics — including grad students from Togo, South Korea and Colombia. All are involved in researching some aspect of sustainability in Michigan.

Endowed by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, SMEP “serves as a catalyst and convener of interdisciplinary dialogue and research around existing and emerging sustainability topics and has invested considerable resources in exploring the implications of sustainability particularly for the future of Michigan.”

Last year the group examined environmental justice and sustainability in Detroit. This time the geographic focus was more rural and agricultural: Traverse City, the largest city in Northwest Michigan but with fewer than 16,000 year-round residents.

We began at the Department of Natural Resources’ Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center in Cadillac. There, amid exhibits about hunting, fishing and wildlife in the state, a DNR interpreter explained the importance of Michigan’s hunting tradition, and the revenue that fishing and hunting licenses generate to support natural resources management and protection.

The next day we went to TART — the nonprofit Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails network — to learn about the community-rooted initiative that promotes outdoor recreation, furthers sustainable transportation and connects trail users with each other and with nature.

“We don’t want to own the trails. We want the community to own the trails,” TART’s Brian Beauchamp told us. “People often fight us on new trails,” Beauchamp, outreach and program director, said, but often discover that the trails increase their property values — and often use the trails themselves.

We met with experts from two environmental nonprofit organizations, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, to discuss such issues as the safety of the controversial Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. FLOW’s Dave Dempsey and Groundwork’s Jim Lively explained how groups like theirs are partnering with tribal governments and businesses in an effort to force the state to close the pipeline.

We headed into the field at the Maple Bay Natural Area, a 450-acre Grand Traverse County Park, with fisheries biologist Steve Hensler and forestry expert Jessica Simons of the Cerulean Center and scientist-educator Jeanie Williams of the Inland Seas Education Association. There our focus was biodiversity and the role of citizen-scientists in gathering environmental data such as plant populations and invasive species.

Amidst lapping waves, low sand dunes, water-smoothed rocks and soaring gulls, our fieldwork included helping Hensler to identify hundreds of tiny fish caught in a seine, alert not only for invasives but also for native fish that aren’t usually found in the East Arm of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.

We also learned from them about BioBlitz, their two-day effort last year by volunteer amateurs and scientists to inventory as many plants and animals as possible at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

At Michigan State University’s Northern Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Leelanau County, researchers serve farmers and growers in its five-county — Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and  Antrim — that produce nearly half of the U.S. tart cherry crop and 83 percent of the state’s sweet cherry crop. The center is also a key player in research about other fruits, especially apples and grapes.

Center coordinator Nikki Rothwell talked about the importance of building relationships between growers and researchers and about recognizing the potentially deadly impact of climate change and extreme weather — such as late frosts and drought — on fruit crops. She emphasized the need to understand the economics of farming and the pressures of development in Northwest Michigan.

We headed to Shady Lane Cellars, a boutique winery in Suttons Bay, to tour the vineyard with vineyard manager Andy Fles and the wine-making facility with winemaker Kasey Wierzba. From there it was to Loma Farm, an organic vegetable and flower farm near Traverse City, to learn from co-owner Nic Theisen about marketing locally, paying employees fairly, environmental sustainability and respecting the land.

Overall, it was evident how diverse aspects of sustainability in Northwest Michigan are, from vineyards to shoreline dunes, from organic leeks to the oil and natural gas pipeline under Straits of Mackinac, from worker wages to outdoor recreation.