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New Salem Farmer WHIPs Invasive Plants

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New Salem Farmer WHIPs Invasive Plants

Carol HillmanWhen 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 farmhouse.

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 owned and managed by Carol Hillman, New Salem, Mass.Hillman’s 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 monitoring.

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 explained.

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 said.

“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.