May 15, 2016
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final blog in our series highlighting the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Our previous blog featured farmers in California’s Salinas Valley and how they were able to reduce farm inputs through improved nutrient management
When you hear the term “pollinator”, what do you think of? For most people, honeybees would be the first thing that comes to mind – but as the number of managed honeybee hives has decreased, native pollinators are playing an increasingly important role in our food system. Pollinators, which can include several types of bees as well as other insects, help produce more than $24 billion worth of crops and products every year in the US – making them an essential part of our food economy.
“There are 4,000 species of native bees in North America, from small solitary mining bees to large and highly social bumble bees, all of which can be important pollinators for agriculture,” said Eric Mader, Pollinator Program Co-Director at The Xerces Society. “With the number of pollinators declining, it’s important that people are educated in identifying these bees and taking measures to try and conserve their populations and protect their habitats.”
In order help protect native pollinator populations, The Xerces Society utilized funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program’s Professional Development Grants. SARE is a farmer-driven research, education and extension grant program that provides training and support for farmers and agriculture professionals throughout the country.
Expanding Knowledge to Support Farmers
The Xerces Society began their relationship with the SARE program in 2009. For their first project, they received funding from North Central SARE (SARE is divided into four regional branches) to create a Pollinator Conservation Short Course for agricultural professionals and staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Social and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Cooperative Extension programs. The courses were designed to draw attention to the population decline of native pollinators, and to promote pollinator conservation by giving agency staff the tools, knowledge, and resources to protect and rebuild pollinator habitats on agricultural lands.
“A lack of knowledge is the key constraint to wider adoption of pollinator conservation,” said Mader. “Farmers want to provide additional habitat for pollinators, but need technical assistance to do so. Our courses provide a mechanism for developing technical support knowledge among farm educators, as well as the farmers themselves.”
Xerces’ Pollinator Short Course provides both classroom and field training components, and covers such topics as principles of pollinator biology, the economics of insect pollination, basic bee field identification, land management practices, habitat restoration, and plant selection.
In order to make their work applicable to a wide variety of farmers and farm landscapes, Xerces worked with SARE conservation experts in each state to identify local communities interested in promoting pollinator conservation efforts in agricultural landscapes. The regionally specific information gathered through this effort was used to inform Xerces’ original series of short courses in the North Central SARE region, and was a significant part of the courses’ success.
Because of the success of their North Central SARE project, The Xerces Society expanded their Pollinator Conservation Short Course nationally by applying for grants in every SARE region. In total, nearly 4,000 people across the country have attended Xerces Pollinator Short Courses to date.
“We’ve received grants from every region for our Pollinator Conservation Short Course, which made us the first project to be funded in all four SARE regions and implemented in all 50 states,” said Mader. “As far as we know, we were the first and only organization to receive SARE funding to implement a project in all 50 states.”
Impacting Pollinator Health
The goal of Xerces’ courses is the protection and revitalization of pollinator populations, but they have also helped create positive ripple effects for agriculture and for the environment generally.
“Pollinator habitats can be incorporated into buffer systems that protect soil and water, and support other wildlife such as game and songbirds,” said Mader. “The conservation impact has a much broader reach than one may realize.”
In the Southern SARE region, for example, over 1,000 staff members in 13 different states from NRCS, SWCD, FSA, and Cooperative Extension programs participated in Xerces’ pollinator short course over the course of three years. Because of the lessons taught in these courses, 10,000 acres of land are now being managed for pollinators, creating healthier lands for farmers and a healthier environment for rural communities.
The impact is even greater when viewed nationally. Mader estimates that each agricultural professional who participates in a short course training goes on to impact at least 100 acres of land and assist with ~3-5 USDA conservation program contracts each.
The Future of SARE Research
Increased investment in sustainable agricultural research is vital to continued productivity and innovation in American agriculture.
For over 25 years, SARE has been at the forefront of research and extension activities that develop profitable and environmentally sound farming systems.
Despite SARE’s popularity, efficiency, and productivity, it is still not funded at even half of its authorized amount. NSAC urges Congress to match the Administration’s budget request to fund SARE at $30 million in fiscal year 2017, which would bring the funding to just half of the authorized spending level.
SARE is administered through four regional councils of producers, researchers, educators, and government representatives. Regional SARE councils house their program information and requests for proposals separately, but you can find the latest SARE information and data from across all regions in the most recent SARE Roundup on the NSAC blog.
What’s in a Name? The Xerces Society
Named after The Xerces Blue Butterfly – the first butterfly species to become extinct in the United States. Originally The Xerces Society focused solely on butterfly conservation, but later expanded their work to include a wider range of invertebrate wildlife conservation efforts. The Xerces Society is a leader in invertebrate conservation work throughout the country, working on issues ranging from protecting freshwater mussels to pesticide policy advocacy.