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Pollinator 'Field of Dreams' Flourishing on Virginia's Eastern Shore

  Volunteers help educate students about agriculture and conservation at a recent Farm Days program (VDSWCD courtesy photo).

A field of yellow coreopsis welcomes pollinating insects in Accomack County. (Photo: Brad Carter, Virginia NRCS)

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, NRCS staff has spent the last nine years working with partners and producers to establish a “field of dreams” for pollinators. These beautiful displays of wildflowers may be a long way from the Iowa cornfields of the iconic movie, but the underlying premise of setting the stage for success is very evident in this team effort.

If you build it

NRCS Private Lands Biologist (PLB) Bob Glennon figures he has personally shepherded the establishment of about 110 acres on plots of all sizes. Some are fairly visible along major highways and thoroughfares while others are smaller, somewhat hidden plantings. The clients run the gamut from professional farmers to hobbyists with varying levels of expertise and equipment access.

“A lot of habitats are backyard-size and that’s great, but the large-scale implementation and the interagency coordination needed to achieve it is the real success story here,” says Accomac District Conservationist Jane Corson-Lassiter.

Glennon and Corson-Lassiter have been involved in a few different demonstration projects at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) in Painter, Va., which focused on building local knowledge of site and seed selection, planting methods and management measures for maintaining a successful habitat.

Project outcomes have reinforced the underlying truth of the oft-misquoted line “if you build it, they will come.” Corson-Lassiter says that demonstrations and test plots have helped to provide valuable experience for NRCS conservationists who are attempting to restore habitat lost through modern fire suppression and changes in farming practices.

“If forest fires were allowed to open up cleared areas, we would see a landscape with meadows and herbaceous ground cover,” said Corson-Lassiter. “Farming systems are also a lot cleaner these days with diminishing field edges.”

They will come.

Glennon is one of the senior biologists in Virginia with vast experience as a plant materials specialist in a previous position with NRCS. His background in developing seed lists and plant establishment guides make him a valuable asset for his region, which includes the Eastern Shore of Virginia and about 20 other counties in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

“Everyone thinks they’re going to get a midwestern prairie,” said Glennon. “NRCS standards require a mix of nine different seeds  – three early season, three mid-season and three late season. You won’t have nine plants in bloom all year long. It’s like a relay race where we’re handing the bees off from one species to another.”

Glennon stresses the important role landowner goals play in developing seed mixes. He’s recommending a lot of more perennial mixes than he did nine years ago to better meet their needs and level of expertise.

“For a typical doctor, lawyer or corporate landowner without equipment, I will design a perennial mix that requires less maintenance along the way,” Glennon explains. “Annuals like partridge pea and coreopsis will usually leave the stand because they don’t have the space to reseed themselves. However, I will still recommend them if the landowner wants to attract pollinators and quail. Partridge pea is important species for quail.”

Playing as a Team.

Of course, these successes wouldn’t be possible without a starting lineup of champions who are invested in establishing and maintaining plantings of all sizes. Landowners like Ken Blair, Grayson Chesser and David Rew are key players in this effort.

Blair raises poultry for Tyson in Wachapreague, Va., and first began working with NRCS to explore options for reducing emissions from his operation. Working with NRCS staff, Ken has planted 12 acres of pollinator meadow in front of his farm and is now raising bees. Blair started with four hives and plans to expand the operation to about 20. Blair has developed a good relationship with a nearby nursery that offers a bountiful menu of flowering plants and schedules insecticide spraying at times when the bees are not as active.  This timing not only protects his honeybees but the numerous native pollinating insects that work the wildflowers.

In Onley, David Rew grows more than corn, soybeans and wheat. The 2019 Grand Basin Clean Water Farm Award winner is working through the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to make his operation pollinator friendly. Rew has planted five acres of pollinator habitat through a five-year agreement that began in 2018. Some of the land chosen is prone to salt-water flooding and has become a “lab” for NRCS testing on plant performance and salt tolerance, which could eventually help bring hundreds of acres on the Eastern Shore now written off as “salt barren” back into productive use.

“Most salt tolerant plants aren’t grown as seed, so seed tends to be very expensive,” Glennon said. “We tried our best nine-species mix, but not many of them had a high salt tolerance. Then, we went back and planted high salt tolerance species from a nursey in North Carolina that does a lot of work with coastal wetland plants. Some are working well.”

Acclaimed waterfowl decoy carver Grayson Chesser has taken 46.1 acres out of production in the small community of Sanford to attract pollinators to his family farm and create a wildlife sanctuary. It took $10,000 worth of seeds and working with NRCS to understand how to plant on such a large scale to complete the project.

“He has a combination of wet and dry soil, so I had to find the right seed mixes for that,” Glennon said. “It’s unusual to do this on so many treeless, private acres You’d ordinarily only see it on something like a mine reclamation. This was a rare opportunity.”