Return to part 1 of our 2022 Catalog Series: Beneficials.

Fireflies

Sometimes beneficials aren’t organisms with obvious or straight forward contributions. It’s easy to understand how a honeybee is beneficial for humans and farms, as the honey is an agricultural product and their pollination in the garden leads to fruit. There are organisms in our ecosystems with more subtle influences on their environment that offer something very important.

These organisms are called bioindicators and they can tell us a lot about the health and vitality of our living landscapes. Species that are considered bioindicators are those that are easily impacted by environmental changes. One species that is heavily impacted by land use change is fireflies. When we see fireflies, it can serve as an indication that the ecosystem is healthy and stable enough to support their lifecycles, which in turn suggests that the ecosystem is also capable of supporting a diverse assortment of other plants and animals.

Fireflies live in meadows and forests and the most common species are completely nocturnal. Hibernating in the winter in their larval stage, insects will either burrow in the ground or take shelter under tree bark, under housing siding, or in other well protected areas. Some species will hibernate for years before emerging in spring. Most species have a predatory larval stage and feed on other insects, snails, worms and slugs. Adult beetle diets vary by species but range from being predatory to feeding on pollen and nectar.

Many species of fireflies have little to no predators due to the chemical compound, and defensive steroid, lucibufagins, which is found in their bodies and makes them taste bad to vertebrate predators. Even without predation, fireflies are declining across the globe for numerous reasons including habitat loss, habitat disconnection, pesticides, herbicides and light pollution. Fireflies are very sensitive to environmental levels of light pollution because they use their bioluminescence to reproduce.

The good news is, just by planting a diverse home garden or by operating an organic farm, we provide valuable habitat that replaces habitat that has potentially been lost to development. Because fireflies spend 95% of their life in larval stages, a healthy, balanced soil can create crucial habitat for native populations. Other ways to support your native fireflies include mulching, low and no-till practices, planting and encouraging native grasses and limiting artificial lighting during their breeding season.

 

Soil Microbes

Dr. Lori Hoagland, Soil Microbial Ecologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana

Dr. Lori Hoagland is a Professor and Soil Microbial Ecologist in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue University. She currently leads a research program aimed at identifying new approaches to improve the productivity, nutritional quality, and safety of locally grown specialty crops while improving and protecting environmental health. “To accomplish this goal, I investigate ways to promote beneficial plant-soil-microbial relationships via different soil/crop management practices and/or crop breeding programs. More specifically, my projects involve trying to promote the abundance and activity of soil and plant-associated microbes that can help plants acquire nutrients and water; prevent colonization of pathogens that cause diseases in plants and humans; and prevent the uptake of toxic heavy metals like cadmium or lead into edible plant tissues.”

Another aspect of this work includes training students. “One of the ways my students and I are trying to understand how to promote beneficial plant-soil-microbial relationships in agriculture is to study these relationships in wild crop ancestors, and if possible, in their native habitats (i.e., wild tomato ancestors in the Andes). Plants evolved alongside soil microbes in natural environments where these relationships were crucial for survival of both partners. However, as we bred crops over time and developed modern farming practices (i.e., fertilizers and pesticides) without knowing about these relationships, it is likely that they were lost, and we actually now have evidence from our research studies to support this. Thus, if we can understand mechanisms that facilitate these beneficial plant-soil-microbial relationships in natural systems/wild ancestors, we can identify ways to bring them into modern germplasm and farming to reduce reliance on off-farm inputs.”

Her research into the beneficial relationships that allow plants to thrive shows the importance of starting crops from quality seed. “Where seed comes from and how it is produced does matter! Sometimes I hear people say that you don’t need organic seed and that this shouldn’t be a requirement of organic farming systems, which really frustrates me. First of all, I think if you are going to support organic farming, you need to support all aspects of it. However, we have evidence that where/how you grow your seed also matters. We know seeds come packaged with microbes (good and bad) inside and on the surface of seed. Moreover, where you grow the seed (i.e., organic vs. conventional system, healthy vs. unhealthy soils and plants), this alters the composition of these seed-borne microbes. So, if you want healthy plants, you need to start with healthy seeds that were grown in healthy organic soil.”

On the individual level, Dr. Hoagland believes that “planting for pollinators is probably one of the easiest ways to support healthy ecosystems, and the most rewarding because you can actually see how the flowers bring in bees, wasps, hummingbirds, etc. Of course, these plants will also provide benefits below ground, as some of the carbon these plants are fixing will be released from plant roots, which helps support beneficial soil microbes.”

You can support the work of Dr. Lori Hoagland by reading her extensive research into plants and soil ecology and by recommending her programs to interested undergraduate students. "The Hoagland Lab is currently recruited PhD students to investigate mechanisms mediating the development of disease suppressive soils."

 

Sankofa Farms

Kamal Bell of Sankofa Farms, an educational farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina

Kamal Bell started Sankofa Farms in 2016. The purpose of starting the farm was to provide a better food source for people in Durham and Orange County, North Carolina who live in food deserts. Through trying to address that issue, Kamal saw the importance of bringing agricultural education to his community. The team at Sankofa decided to start a program to educate youth about the possibilities that exist in agriculture. They saw this as a more long-term approach to addressing food deserts and the issues that create them, as well as the issues they perpetuate.

Sankofa Farm and Agricultural Academy is made up of multiple components including sustainable vegetable production, egg layers, value added goods, and an apiary. “Our beekeeping journey started around 2017. Our student, Cameron Jackson, suggested that we get bees and at that time, I was terrified. Even so, he mentioned that having the honeybees would keep him engaged at the farm, so I literally thought, ‘if bees will keep him engaged on the farm, we’re gonna get bees.’”

Kamal attended a local beekeeping training to learn more about what seemed like a niche agricultural trade. At his first day in the training, he noticed that there weren’t many Black people in the class. Realizing that beekeeping and other specialized agricultural vocations were not often advertised as options to people in his community, he felt called to bring these skills to his students. “At that time, they had scholarships they gave out to students that typically wouldn’t have the opportunity to get acquainted with beekeeping. From that conversation, 6 of our students ended up getting certified as beekeepers.”

Alongside the beekeeping at Sankofa Farms, students also produce crops. The market garden at the farm provides students with other valuable life lessons. “I think one of the biggest things students learn from growing vegetables on the farm is the financial piece. You have inputs like time, labor, compost, and seeds—all of these inputs are wrapped up in the production of plants. The students are able to see all of these inputs going in and then learn about setting a price point and I think that is an important life skill and it definitely captures their interest, too.”

Kamal’s students, like all of today’s youth, are aware of the uncertainties associated with our changing climate. For Kamal, there is hope in the work of each of his students and help to be found on local farms as we look to the future. “We talk about climate change and many other topics with the kids. The farm is a great place for us to put these things into perspective. When we talk about how climate change is going to affect our community, we can show them how farms like ours can be of service.”

Even so, climate change does not impact every community equally. Kamal knows just how important it is for his students to develop the skills offered at Sankofa Farms so that they may provide for their communities in the future. “Our students are going to be the ones that need to propose a new way of thinking for our community going forward. We know how these conversations generally work in the world today; our community, and communities like ours, are not typically invited into spaces to have them. Naturally, people are drawn in to the work of our students and ask them about farming and beekeeping. I don’t feel like I have to say to them that they have to get involved in the environmental justice movement, they just do the work and it speaks for itself.”

You can support Sankofa Farms and Agricultural Academy through the donations page on their website and by engaging with their social media and Youtube Channel. "The goal of Sankofa Farms is to create a sustainable food source for minorities in both rural and urban areas located in Durham and Orange County, North Carolina."

 

High Mowing Trials Farm

Taylor Maida, Trials Farm Manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds

Here at High Mowing, we feel honored to be a part of a global community invested in supporting and expanding the organic agriculture movement. It is through the collaborative, beneficial work of so many passionate people and organizations with specialized knowledge and skills that we are able to source and provide productive varieties of heirlooms, open-pollinated, and hybrid crops specifically suited for organic growing systems.

At High Mowing, the dedicated work of our Product Development team and specifically the efforts of our Trials team led by Manager, Taylor Maida, allow us to bring our growers the very best of what is available in organics today. Throughout each year, the Product Development team meets to identify potential "slots," or crops with specific and desirable attributes. These slots could be things like a colorful snap pea, or a short-day red onion. Once these slots are prioritized, Taylor connects with vendors and breeders to identify existing or up-and-coming varieties. These materials are being developed by a range of partners including large companies, independent breeders, farmers, universities, hobby gardeners, and others. If the material can be located and sourced organically, now or in the future, seeds are brought to the Trials farm to be grown out and evaluated by the Product Development and Trials teams.

When asked what her biggest challenge is in her work, Taylor explained, “Convincing seed vendors to start producing organic seed—or licensing the material to us to be produced by others who are willing to do it organically—and continuing these productions going forward." The seed marketplace is an industry that spans the world. The organic seed marketplace is a small sliver of this global business and people like Taylor are instrumental in pushing more seed breeders and companies to prioritize the development of organic varieties. "I think it is important to find the best organic varieties that will reliably work for people with something special about them, whether it be how good it tastes, how well it stores, how well it holds up to disease, how slow it is to bolt, and/or how high-yielding it is."

Beyond the beneficial role our Trials farm plays in solving production problems for growers, the Trials farm itself feeds High Mowing staff through a season long CSA, and the surrounding community through produce donations to local organizations like Salvation Farms. It serves as a gathering place for our partners and organic seed breeders who come to talk shop and see how their varieties are performing in the field. The efforts of Product Development and Trials help meet the challenges of the moment, but also serve as High Mowing’s opportunity to help shape the future. Lastly, the beautifully biodiverse fields of organically grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers create habitat for multitudes of organisms with whom we share our home.

You can support the work of High Mowing Seeds by continuing to source your organic, Non-GMO Project Verified seeds from our High Mowing trials approved selection of vegetables, flowers, fruit and herbs"We are passionate about supporting the important work of our organic growers and we know that together we can build a greener, more just and community supported world, one seed at a time."