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Pollinator Feature Article

By: Art Hovey/Lincoln Journal Star

On a given day, Nebraska grain farmers could be accused of preoccupation with the best-yielding corn hybrids and the price of soybeans.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service wants them to step back and smell the flowers.

Of course, they have to plant them first.

Dean Lesoing of Hickman already has carved out his family’s back-to-nature retreat on an acre well-removed from the nearest road and next to a winding creek.

“I was really shocked that first year to come out in the middle of summer, probably three months after they were planted, and I saw flowers blooming,” Lesoing said. “And it really gives it quite a look.”

While federal farm officials are all for creating ambiance and peace of mind, that’s not their main target.

They’re aiming at pollination season and using the conservation reserve and stewardship programs to create habitat for bees and other pollinating insects.

Parasites, pesticides, disease, disappearance of flowering weeds from road ditches and other factors have laid waste to the bee population in Nebraska and other states, partly because of the evolving emphasis toward row-crop production.

That’s cost the state its status as one of the nation’s top three honey producers — it’s now in the teens — and posed problems for cucumbers, squash, watermelon and other garden produce that depends on insects to reproduce.

Greg Weber, a Lincoln-based NRCS soil conservationist, is among those trying to restore some of the habitat that’s been lost due to a surge in grain prices and a conversion of marginal acres to grain production.

“Concerns over pollination have evolved over the last four or five years,” Weber said Tuesday. “There’s a huge national emphasis on that because of the bee problem, pollinator collapse and all that.”

Bee expert Marion Ellis of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said there’s a price to pay for high grain prices.

“I’m happy that corn is $7,” Ellis said, “and that people are making a lot of money. But that’s taken away a lot of ground that has traditionally not had row crops on it.”

If bees and other pollinators are to keep their place in rural settings, cropping patterns can’t stop there.

“I think any efforts to counterbalance that by providing pollinator habitat are important,” Ellis said.

Using flower power for that purpose calls for some strategy so the annual blooming procession is sustained from mid-April through mid-October.

The NRCS’s Weber described blanket flower and western yarrow as good candidates to include in a mixture of grass and flower seed because they show their colors early.

Grayhead cornflower and black-eyed Susan fit well into a middle grouping, and gay feathers and stiff golden rod can bring up the rear of the growing season to good effect.

At a minimum, the agency wants nine different species in the planting mix, “and we try to split them up into three different bloom periods.”

Federal pollination promoters get what they want by the way they score farmer applications competing for enrollment and annual payments in conservation plantings.

“We call them enhancements,” Weber said of farmers’ decisions to include wild flowers in grass mixtures, “and it’s something they can do to increase their score in the rankings.”

Hickman farmer Lesoing chose his wild flower location carefully.

“It’s hard to get in and out of with bigger equipment,” he said. “It has a creek meandering around it on three sides. And when there’s a lot of heavy rain, it would flood and wash out.

“It just made more sense to idle that land and put it in a conserving use.”

As an alfalfa producer, Lesoing earns income from hay sales at the same time as he offers insects another flowering plant and makes another contribution to their habitat.

“When you do that,” he said, “you have, maybe, a larger awareness of insects, bugs and everything that actually pollinate, that use pollen -- all kinds of butterflies and bees. In fact, years ago, we had a honey producer who kept hives in one of our pastures, because it had alfalfa all around there.”

Results vary in getting farmers thinking about flowers, along with corn seed choices and fluctuating grain prices, Weber said.

For some, operating on fertile ground with ample irrigation, farming is all about maximizing grain yields and income potential.

In less intensely farmed settings, “A lot of people are interested in doing prairie restorations, establishing things like they were before people started farming.”