Bringing back flowers to the field

Operation Pollinator is asking producers to set aside two acres for pollinator-attracting plants this summer

An initiative to increase biodiversity and pollinator habitat on golf courses is making its large-scale farm debut this summer.

Operation Pollinator, spearheaded by Syngenta, was introduced in Canada in 2012 after first appearing in the United Kingdom over a decade ago. The program first approached golf courses, providing seed for out-of-play areas to be planted with pollinator-attracting plants.

“(We) have seen a tremendous benefit to native pollinators — butterflies and bees — increasing in these plots, so you do see a tangible benefit,” Paul Hoekstra, Syngenta Canada senior stewardship and policy manager, said. “Even small spaces can make a big difference to native bees and other pollinators.”

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Syngenta followed up the golf course program with pilot projects on select farms before partnering with the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) this year, to roll out the program across the Prairies.

The program will provide enough seed for up to two acres of pollinator-friendly plants per farm, agronomy advice and financial assistance to offset planting costs.

“From the Soil Conservation Council of Canada’s point of view, Operation Pollinator is very close to our interests and mandate in helping to sustain the viability of the agricultural landscape, including soil,” SCCC executive director Jim Tokarchuk said. “We see that having a good, healthy population of pollinators working with us on the landscape is good for producers; it’s good for crop production. It’s generally a positive thing on the landscape and it’s just an exciting opportunity to work with some of our provincial partners and with a company like Syngenta in bringing this kind of program to Canada.”

The Manitoba Conservation District Association, Agriculture Research and Extension Council of Alberta and Saskatchewan Conservation Association are provincial partners and direct farm contacts with the program.

The mix

Both perennial and annual species make up the seed provided to producers, including three types of clover, phacelia, birdsfoot trefoil and timothy grass, chosen for its quick growth to discourage weeds while slower-growing plants become established.

“The mix was selected for a variety of reasons,” Hoekstra said. “First of all, you want to make sure that the mix provides a good season-long bloom for native pollinators and other insects. It’s good forage for these animals, these insects, as well as a habitat for them to live, so that’s the first criteria. The second is, really, we want to make sure that this is compatible with commercial operations on the farm, so we want to make sure that the seed mix is readily available, that the seed types are not rare and certainly not difficult to source commercially. We want to make sure that things are also available to be scaled to a larger farm size with planting equipment, etc. And we also wanted to make sure that the seed mix was developed so it could be utilized across a broad range of geographies and conditions.”

Operation Pollinator hopes to register 100 sites throughout the Prairies this year and is about one-third of the way to that goal.

“One hundred acres across Prairie Canada is a very small amount and I think, in general, we’ve been very well supported because I think this shows another additional commitment by agricultural producers towards biodiversity and the environment,” Tokarchuk said.

Producers are encouraged to plant solid patches of at least one acre under the program, a stipulation the SCCC has said will encourage habitat density. Most producers signed on so far have opted for a single two-acre patch, Tokarchuk said.

Manitoba Agriculture also applauded the program. David Ostermann, industry specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, cited the role of both native and managed pollinators in agriculture and the benefit of longer-blooming plants to pollinator populations.

“Smaller pollinators in particular often have a relatively short habitat range, so more areas for them can increase their distribution and benefits they provide,” he said. “Untilled areas are good for pollinators that nest in the ground, such as many native bees in the province.”

Increased biodiversity may also contribute to more pest insect stability, he said.

Provincial entomologists have advocated buffer strips — unharvested, biodiverse areas neighbouring fields — to encourage pollinator and beneficial predator and parasitoid populations.

Ostermann said such buffers should be at least 20 to 30 feet wide.

“Relative to the arable farmland in the province, seed for one to two acres may not be a lot, but these initiatives can be quite popular on their own or with other activities, and can raise a lot of awareness at the same time,” he said.

Operation Pollinator currently runs in 13 countries and includes research and public education on biodiversity and pollinator health on top of its habitat building programs.

Anyone wishing to participate in the project can register through the SCCC website or through the Manitoba Conservation District Association.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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