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Meet an Iowa Farmer Who Puts Pollinators First

“It sounds kind of crazy, you know, dumping gravel in the middle of your field,” says fifth-generation farmer Andrew Dunham, “if you don’t understand the ecological process.”

Andrew’s voice brims with enthusiasm as he discusses his latest plan to improve habitat for native bees and other beneficial insects on Grinnell Heritage Farm, his 80-acre organic farm in central Iowa. He’s eager to explain the ecological logic that undergirds his innovations in the fields.

Native bees are crucial to fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest. There are more than 4,000 species in North America, and each has different pollen and nesting requirements to survive. To help accommodate those needs, Andrew and his team have planted about 1,500 flowering shrubs around the farm. They’ve also planted banks of bunch grasses to provide a comfy tuft where bumble bees and other beneficial insects can bed down for the winter — and avoid drowning when the snow melts in the spring.

“Some of these beneficial insects do not travel far, distance-wise. So if you have, say, a huge field of broccoli, like 500 acres, and you don’t have these features in the middle of your farm, but you do on the edges, you might be getting some of that beneficial insect help on the edges of your field, but you’re definitely not getting them in the center of your field,” says Andrew.

Hence Andrew’s plan to scatter piles of gravel throughout his fields. It may look “crazy,” but gravel can provide a home for ground-nesting bees that pollinate everything from peppers to pumpkins.

Andrew traces his passion for pollinators to a fateful 2010 farm conference where he met Eric Mader, Co-Director of Pollinator Conservation for the Xerces Society.

“Everything he said was just kind of revelatory,” Andrew remembers. As an organic farmer, Andrew understood the interdependent relationship between pollinators and flowering fruits and vegetables, but he was only beginning to appreciate the challenges that pollinators were facing due to loss of habitat.

 “I knew enough to know that I needed to know more, and the information that he presented that day was exactly what I needed to hear.”

Andrew left that day with an armful of Xerces Society handouts and a belief that he could do something to help solve the problem of pollinator decline. Six years later, the results are tangible. “With squash and some of our other bee-pollinated crops, our yields per acre are going up. We’re able to get more out of less acreage. So there’s economic incentive to put in some of these features as well as ecological benefits.”

The crew at Grinnell Heritage Farm is noticing native pollinators, and beneficial insects have become a frequent topic of conversation. In order to differentiate between the effects of heightened awareness and the effects of habitat restoration, Andrew asked the Xerces Society to create a farm-scale survey to help Grinnell Heritage and other farms to track pollinator populations. The organization obliged, and the farm-scale survey will roll out this spring.

Grinnell Heritage Farm is one of many Whole Foods Market farmer partners who have received training and support from the Xerces Society. With help from funds raised by Whole Foods Market customers, Xerces has trained over 25,000 farmers and land managers over the last four years.

When asked what he appreciates most about the Xerces Society, Andrew points to their positive, can-do attitude. “Their message is that you can do something about this.”

Have you made changes to your yard, farm or garden to help support pollinator habitat? Tell us about them in the comments.