Crops May Benefit From Wild Neighbors

  • Researchers at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station are growing corn, soybeans, and wheat near weed patches and timbered areas to see how crop production is affected by things in nature.

Some researchers are beginning to believe farmers could produce cropsmore cheaply if they get back to nature. They think some insects foundin the wild and even some weeds could help. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Some researchers are beginning to believe farmers could produce crops more cheaply if they get back to nature. And they think some insects found in the wild and even some weeds could help. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

Just 20 years ago it was common to see farmers or some young kids they hired
cutting weeds out of soybean fields. It was a point of pride to have a clean
field- nothing but the crop.

“I am one of those older farmers that grew up with the idea that
you shouldn’t have a weed in the field.”

Tom Guthrie farms nearly 800 acres in southwestern Michigan.

“If you had a weed in the field, that was competition and that
was going to lessen the number of dollars that ended up on your bottom line.
But, we didn’t at that time understand the relationship among all systems.
And the weeds and the insects and so forth are part of those systems.”

Guthrie says farmers are now beginning to understand that they can’t just
rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to replace nature. At least not
without some harm to the environment. That’s why he has been watching with
some interest the research going on just a few miles from his farm.

Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station is trying to find out
whether farmers could benefit more from some of the things in nature. They
already know that pollinators such as bees and butterflies, as well as
microbes in the soil are all needed to help crops grow well. But the
researchers are learning that there are a lot more connections between the
natural world and growing crops. Kay Gross is a plant ecologist at the
biological station. She says researchers are finding crops grown near
natural areas are helped in other ways.

“Because those hedgerows, old fields, and woodlots often provide
habitat for the beneficial insects that can serve as predators against pests
in agricultural systems.”

Gross says there are lots of examples. For instance lady bugs, or what some
people call ladybird beetles, eat aphids, a pest that damages soybeans. A
wasp that lives along the edge of timber destroys the European corn borer,
which is a major pest in corn fields. Without the natural areas where many
of these bugs live. Gross says farmers have to rely more on chemical

Gross says weeds also can help. low growing ground cover can help retain
nitrogen in the fields and help reduce soil erosion. Gross says the trick is
to find the kinds of plants that will help farm crops- not compete with

“I mean, ideally you could come up with a crop rotation, tillage
management system that would get only the best out of the weed community and
none of the negatives. That may not be possible.”

Researchers say they’re just beginning to understand the inter-relationships
between nature and growing food. Finding a balance that makes economic sense
will take a lot more study.

Phil Robertson is one of the project leaders at the Kellogg Biological
Station. He says there might soon be a day when farmers leave a patch of
weeds in the center of the field, or leave strips of natural areas to take
advantage of nature’s resources.

“At this point it’s too early to make specific recommendations
other than the generalization that diversity at some level is likely to be
very beneficial and will likely save producers money over the long haul.
But, as to how much diversity is needed, how much diversity is desirable,
that question still awaits further information from studies such as the one
being conducted here.”

Robertson says unfortunately, farmers might have hurt their prospects in
recent years in an effort to become more productive. Many farmers cleared
away fence-rows and timber areas to make it easier to use much bigger
tractors and implements. The idea was to get more crops planted and
harvested to meet the demands of new world markets.

“Well, it’s very likely there’s has been a cost to removing
those fence-rows and removing that landscape complexity that we don’t yet
fully understand. But, certainly we know that maintaining the diversity of
the surrounding landscape will improve the ability of that landscape to help
provide services to the cropping system.”

Farmers who visit the biological station are intrigued. After a lifetime of
viewing bugs and weeds as pests to kill, farmer Tom Guthrie says it will
probably be the next generation of farmers who actually turn back to nature.
Not the ones who’ve already spent a good portion of their lives
hand-chopping and tilling weeds out of the fields.
For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.