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Depending on the Wild to Pollinate

Depending on the Wild to PollinateBy Tivoli Gough, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS WI

After a hard day’s work in the orchard, there’s nothing like enjoying a glass of cider made from apples you grew yourself. Deirdre Birmingham can do just that.

Deirdre has academic training and experience in third-world agriculture, but she’s never had a farm of her own. She and her husband, John Biondi, decided to live their dream and bought 166 acres of farmland in 2002.

Besides restoring their land to prairie, Deirdre and her husband also raise pigs and chickens.

“There’s something for everyone here. It’s a diverse landscape,” said Deirdre. The land had its challenges—invasive woodland species and multi-flora rose, over-cropped farmland and highly erodible land. It needed habitat for pollinators and buffers to keep chemicals used on neighboring farms from leaching onto her land.

Deirdre and John go organic

“Organic farming not only benefits the land, water and wildlife, it also enhances the exquisite taste of our cider, said Deirdre.”

They started five acres of orchard on an unused hillside. They now have 10 acres of trees and a seasonal high tunnel full of healthy seedlings. “We planted 3,000 to 4,000 trees this past year and we’re also planting 5,000 more trees, this year,” said Deirdre.

They press their own apples and take the juice to a winery in Illinois. The refreshing result is apple juice under their own label, The Cider Farm.

Signing on for NRCS practices

Deirdre enrolled in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) conservation programs for orchard practices. “We added wood chips from the orchard to our soil to increase the soil’s organic matter,” said Deirdre. “We also interseed our soil with white dutch clover. It’s pollinator-friendly and an excellent living mulch and a cover crop. Any time we have bare soil, we seed it in the orchard.” Deirdre also installed windbreaks to protect her land from the area’s persistent high winds. 

Close-up of a wild bee pollinating an apple tree on Deirdre's orchard.

NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) practices also helped her to control invasive species, improve her forest lands, protect soil with cover crops and maintain pollinator-friendly field borders around the orchard.

EQIP also helped Deirdre and John build a seasonal high tunnel to grow tree seedlings. “The high tunnel is phenomenal,” said Deirdre. “It extends our growing season, giving us early growth in April.”

The University of Wisconsin−Madison found 14 different wild pollinator species at work on the orchard. “We rely on the wild pollinators out here and keep something blooming for them all the time,” said Deirdre. She and John also practice alternate row mowing to keep their grass and herbal species high and healthy for pollinators and other beneficial insects. “We’re trying to work with biology, trying to get the biology working for us as much as we can,” explains Deirdre.

A high tunnel is also called a hoop house. It is an outdoor structure that helps extend the growing season by providing growing conditions that allows crops to thrive year-round.

An advocate for NRCS

“I recently received a mailing about conservation planning from my NRCS district conservationist. I’ve been sharing it with other growers,” said Deirdre. “Someone recently contacted me for help with organic garlic production. I asked him if he knew about NRCS and the Transitioning to Organic Program. The next week, the NRCS district conservationist for the county was out there getting him signed up.”

Deirdre discusses tree seedlings inside her hoop house built with NRCS technical and financial assistance.

“It’s farmers like Deirdre that are priceless advocates, working to get conservation on the ground on her own farm and educating others to help the environment for the long run,” said Andy Walsh, a district conservationist in Iowa County.

Deirdre checks in on the flora growing in her orchard.

Deirdre is doing it right. She understands that good conservation practices build soil health and keep her trees healthy. “Without good soil and good pollinators, we don’t have a crop,” said Deirdre.

“We’re dependent on them as a natural resource. Healthy soils feed healthy plants and animals, which feed healthy people. It all makes sense.”