New Salem Farmer WHIPs Invasive Plants
New Salem Farmer WHIPs Invasive Plants
Carol Hillman and her former husband bought a hillside orchard in the Western
Massachusetts town of New Salem in 1968, the apple trees had been abandoned and
were badly in need of pruning.
“You couldn’t walk through the rows because of the dead branches that were
there, so we did a large restoration,” recalled Hillman, looking out over the
panoramic view of the northern tip of the Quabbin Reservoir from her 1760
Now, some 37 years later, Hillman is again working to reverse the wild
progression of nature in the meadows surrounding her orchard. This time the
culprit isn’t neglect but invasive plants that are threatening both her orchard
and wildlife habitat. And this time she’s working with the help of a local
forester and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
orchards and meadows cascade down a hillside more than 1,000 feet above the west
side of the Quabbin and, like most New England farmland, are crisscrossed by
colonial era stone walls. Hillman’s forester, Lincoln Fish of Bay State Forestry
in Haydenville, Mass., noticed that several species of invasive plants,
including multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, Tatarian honeysuckle and
Japanese barberry, were advancing from the woodlands over the stone walls and
into the meadows.
“We’ve often walked the woods together and discussed the land and he made me
aware of the invasive plants that were coming in,” said Hillman. Fish suggested
she get in touch with the NRCS field office in nearby Greenfield to apply for
cost-share assistance through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).
Rita Thibodeau, NRCS District Conservationist for Franklin County, explained
that the 12 acre area was becoming heavily infested with these plants. “It was
like a jungle. People couldn’t walk through there and it was deterring wildlife,
too,” said Thibodeau.
Thibodeau explained that to encourage a healthy ecosystem, fields adjoining a
forest should see a gradual increase in plant diversity from the ground level to
the upper tree canopy. “Grassy field edges provide wildlife habitat for a
variety of wildlife species,” she said. “Edges provide areas for nesting,
feeding and cover.”
Hillman was receptive to Fish’s idea to apply the WHIP program. “Things will
take over if you’re not on top of it,” she realized. “If I didn’t do anything
about it then, it would create a situation that would be very difficult.”
After her application was accepted, Fish went to work eradicating
the invaders using mechanical and chemical methods. Mowing in the meadow is
delayed, however, until after July 30th to protect ground nesting birds that
nest earlier in the summer.
“Some species of birds rely on open grassland for feeding on insects and
seeds, as well as breeding and nesting,” explained Thibodeau. “And larger birds
like hawks and owls depend on open grassland for hunting small rodents.”
“Lincoln has done a lot of spraying, cutting and mowing. He worked on the far
side of the wall and I worked on this side of the wall to try to get everything
under control,” said Hillman, who joined in the effort. “I think it’s already
made a tremendous difference.”
“Carol and Lincoln are restoring and managing an ecosystem that had all but
disappeared,” said Thibodeau who explained that under a five-year contract with
NRCS, the project will include three years of cost-share assistance and on-going
Hillman knows from past experience that controlling unwanted vegetation is
important from both an economic and aesthetic standpoint. “If you look at a
meadow, you want to see the grasses rather than something that doesn’t belong
there,” said Hillman.
“At one point when we first bought the property, we got only one apple from
those orchards. This year was our largest crop ever. We brought in 1,700
bushels. It’s been a labor of love, but something that has been very fruitful,”
Hillman manages the three acre orchard with the help of her partner Robert
Colnes and her son John. Local residents provide seasonal labor. She sells her
apples – mostly McIntosh, plus some older varieties – to area grocery stores and
at a self-service lock-box stand at the end of her driveway. She has a small
cider mill that produces 1,100 gallons annually and she also produces sun-cooked
preserves in her certified kitchen.
Since the conservation work was done, Hillman has seen more wildlife on her
property. In fact in early January she saw moose tracks in the snow, tracks that
were verified by local wildlife experts.
Although she had never seen a moose on her land before, she has seen an
abundance of other wildlife. Deer, coyotes, black bears, many species of birds,
fisher cats, mink, muskrat, and otter are regular visitors and a bobcat was
spotted this summer.
Hillman wanted to encourage that wildlife, even though the animals sometimes
cause minor damage in her orchard. “I don’t consider it a major problem because
there’s enough for everybody,” she said.
Hillman said that her experience working with NRCS has been very positive.
NRCS staff helped guide her through the process and the paperwork. “Everyone has
been very cooperative, they are always willing to answer my questions,” she
“I’m very pleased to be part of this program. It fits with my idea of taking
care of the land in the best possible way I know how,” said Hillman. “I feel so
fortunate in owning this land and being the steward of the land and I want to do
everything I can to preserve the natural quality.”
by Diane Baedeker Petit, Public Affairs Specialist, Amherst, Mass.