Farmscape ecology – what’s that?


Patience, that’s what a practitioner of any of the natural sciences needs. Watching the short film “Farmscape Ecology” makes it clear what a huge amount of that quality is needed for any field study to yield results.

The film, part of filmmaker Jon Bowermaster’s “Hope on the Hudson” series, was mostly shot at the Farm Hub in Hurley, a place that could be described as a giant science lab devoted, the film’s narrator says, to “exploring how farming and wildlife can coexist. We call this collaboration farmscape ecology.”

The Rochester Environmental Conservation Committee showed the film as part of its Third Thursday lecture series, a monthly online event. Afterward, several members of the research team in the film fielded questions coming from their Zoom audience.

The Farm Hub has a partner across the river in this research, Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology, based at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County. The first scientist to appear in the film is Conrad Vispo, a wildlife ecologist at Hawthorne Valley. He is looking for insects that are common to crop fields and their perimeters. To find out what’s living there, “We set up traps at the edge of the field, 30 feet into the field,” he says, and at several more points. Another technique is to take a net and sweep” through a field to see what you get. He is looking for both the pests and the beneficial insects that prey upon them.

Claudia Vispo, a field botanist, has been working to establish native wildflower meadows at the Farm Hub for the past couple of years, said, “We decided to create these meadow test plots” trying to attract the beneficials and grassland-feeding birds, she explains.When you’re trying to establish a native meadow, the first year it will sleep, the second year it will creep, and the third year it will leap.”

Conrad Vispo explains that the meadows are created from seed mixes that haven’t been tested for local success. So we’re trying to see, one, can you establish these meadows organically, and two, does it make any difference? Are you getting the creatures you hope you’re getting?”

Students from Bard College appear in the film collecting core samples of Farm Hub soil to analyze the world of microscopic life there and assess its health. They look, for example, for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A hydrologist samples water from the Esopus Creek, which runs through the Farm Hub land, “to see whether our new farming practices are affecting the water quality.” Erosion and fertilizer runoff from farms are both problematic in Hudson Valley waterways.

“The stream has created the amazing soil of the Hurley Flats,” comments Claudia Vispo, walking under the trees along the Esopus’ shady, overgrown banks. There’s a lot of diversity hiding in those forests.” She has counted upward of 400 plant species on the Farm Hub, over half of them growing near the river.

A pair of wildlife ecologists track a wood turtle that has a radio transmitter on its back. They find one with a huge crack in its shell, perhaps made by farm equipment. To keep turtles from disappearing, they say, what’s critical is to maintain a buffer of unfarmed land around streams and to protect their nesting areas.

Anne Bloomfield, a field biologist at the Farm Hub, specializes in birds; 167 species have been spotted there. Some birds, she notes, “are initially attracted because they’re eating the pests … but then they switch their diet and start eating the corn kernels … Some people suggest that you can leverage the good part of what the bird is doing and mitigate your risk.”

The same might possibly be said of keeping some weeds around, if insect pest predators abound in them. Jay Goldmark, field crop manager, says,Normally you’d eliminate a swale like this,” gesturing at a low-lying area between fields that has been left wild, “because it’s competition for your monocrop.” Bloomfield acknowledges that from the road, it looks a little unkempt.” The idea of letting strips or corners of land on a farm remain wild, or a managed version of wild, emerges as the main focus of the film.

A year or two is not enough to tell you how any of these experiments are working. Conrad Vispo: “The meadows evolve every year … To get trends, you really need several years.” At the end of the summer season documented by the film, it’s at least become clear, says Claudia Vispo, that some wildflower species don’t do well here. By leaving them out of the seed mix, “we could cut the price in less than half” and make it available for sale to farmers and the public at large.

After the half-hour film showing was over, Bloomfield and the Vispos were on hand to field questions from the Zoom audience.

“What’s next for the meadows?” someone asked. Claudia Vispo: “How much management to avoid going to forest? One of the things we have to be aware of is that in our area, meadows are an unnatural habitat, something that nature would not maintain on its own … Certain plants are dominant for a few years, and then other species slowly take over.” She noted that the parasitic wasps so helpful to farmers are attracted to different, less showy flowers than the ones that bees and butterflies prefer.

Bloomfield added that the Vispos are keeping track of the cost of maintaining a meadow without using herbicides to kill existing vegetation, trying to find out if it could be a financially sustainable practice for commercial farming.

The best time to mow a meadow? Claudia: “Late winter, when the ground is still frozen.” Conrad: Mow in sections – half one year, half the next. That way, you’re letting the creatures on one half survive and they can repopulate the other half.”

What insects are beneficial? Conrad: “The question becomes, Are they actually benefiting crops? We’ve planted mainly squash and sweet corn … next to a plot that’s high in wildflowers, for example. Then you have a plot that’s high in grasses and plant next to it as a control. Then following it up, How did they do? We’re only in our second year of doing this, but I can say that the squash seemed to grow best next to the control … we’re still trying to figure out why that is. Possibly those controls have smaller flowers, not as showy,” and the parasitic wasps which prey on pests like them best. Sweet corn did better with the flower seed mix, but we only did it for one year, it may not have been statistically significant. So this year we’re going to plant a whole lot more.”

Are they experimenting with cover crops? Bloomfield: Yes, to see which ones might be good habitat for overwintering birds. That’s a project that’s just getting off the ground now.”

Are local insect populations crashing? Conrad: There just hasn’t been enough research to document it. If you want to be a student of nature, what you need is patience and time, time, time.

Fun for a field biologist is, according to Bloomfield, walking out into a cornfield and “seeing what I’m going to see that day, like … the empty egg cases of the European corn borer,” destroyed by those tiny parasitic wasps. “That’s one of my favorite things.”

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