The Ecology of a Production Field

One thing that I have yet to mention, that is kind of a large part of my job, is the tending of a milkweed production garden. I don’t have a picture of the whole thing, but it’s massive! It hosts I believe 3 different kinds of milkweed, and has around 50 plants. It was planted last year in an effort to get more milkweeds out into the Ouachitas for obvious monarch reasons. But….we have a bug infestation! I hate using that word because in the picture below you will find the milkweed bug. This bug along with aphids, assassin bugs, and of course the pollinators are all insects that belong in the ecosystem of the milkweed. Infestation implies something negative, and in this case I guess it is, too many milkweed bugs=no seeds, but I wish there was a better way to talk about it.

Not sure why the file was corrupted, but I quite like the outcome

This production garden is basically a mono culture: the bugs can easily find it, aren’t tempted by other nearby plants, and have unlimited resources to sustain them. Only in these kind of ecosystems do bugs really start to become a “problem”. This situation reminds me of an article I read in my tropical ecology class by Dr. Altieri. He says that if you start considering pests a problem, you aren’t viewing agriculture as an ecosystem, which is what it is. This has got me thinking about why this garden was designed the way that it was. It would have been beneficial to everyone if other native plants were grown at the same time. Not all my pods would be destroyed like they seem they may be soon if I don’t do something about it.

I wrote this a couple weeks back and in the meantime I’ve: gotten all the pods I can out of the production garden, the milkweed is starting to ‘die’ for the season, and I’ve started planting some other plants in the garden! I weeded the garden at the beginning of the season and all the weeds are back. I wish I could have kept up with it the whole summer but summer highs of 95, and sometimes above, made that a little difficult. I hope that next year someone who goes out to the seed orchard every other day will be able to check on the milkweed that way no pods will be lost to the wind. Because my office is 45 minutes away from the production garden it just made it difficult to effectively tend to the garden, especially because often there wasn’t anything else for me to do out there. This meant that going to check on the pods was a 2 hour endeavor that often ended up empty handed. At the beginning of the season there were plenty of seeds of other plants to collect in between the pine trees at the orchard but the mowers got a little excited and mowed down a lot of my flowers…Hopefully by the end of the season there will be some more seeds to collect out there.

Kind of off topic but about farming

I’ve always been a gardener but I’ve never owned my own. All through college I would volunteer at urban farms in New Orleans but I always felt that I wasn’t in a permanent place enough to start my own. I realize now that was silly because I planted some plants in pots up here in Arkansas. I guess I was inspired by the milkweed garden…

I’ve been reading the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. In this book one whole section is about rice cultivation. He talks about how rice is super finicky and could never be grown in the super industrialized way that corn and soy beans are. He stresses the importance of time and strenuous labor involved in the trade. With rice, the more time you put in, the more money you make. This isn’t true with something like corn where you can substitute time with chemicals. I really liked this section of the book because it goes to show that you can’t innovate your way out of every problem. This is why gardening has always appealed to me. The work that you put in leaves you with a tangible product. And this is why tending to the milkweed garden has been difficult! The way it was designed doesn’t leave me hopeful about the product. I just hope that next year the seeds I’ve planted come up and lead to a garden that is modeled after an ecosystem.

Of course the dilemma of the gardener is that you want ALL the product and don’t want any to go to the insects but sometimes the sacrifice is necessary! As a gardener, you are the one who is disrupting the normal system, you can’t expect nature to not give you some bit of a hard time. 

Ok, one more tangent. Before I started working for the Forest Service I didn’t realize that our nations forests are basically large pine tree (and other tree) production fields. Most of the work that people do in the office has to do with managing this land to make sure the production of pine trees is maximized. Hence why the forest service is part of the Department of Agriculture. It’s crazy though how differently the forests are managed as opposed to crop fields. It seems to come easily to foresters that the maintenance of the natural ecosystem of a forest is important but when you move to growing corn, that mentality is lost? I understand why. Pine trees were there to begin with, the foresters are just managing them. But where the corn is, there also used to be an ecosystem. Maybe short term it wouldn’t be as productive to try and keep some of the aspects of that original ecosystem. But long term, it would be really beneficial! Especially because letting the land lay fallow to regenerate wouldn’t take as much time, but much of the original plants would already be around! Anyways, just a tangent about how farmers need to be more like foresters (who are also just farmers). 

I have 4 more weeks here in Arkansas! So the next blog post will be the last one.

Altieri, “Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing sustainable farming systems.” http://www.agroeco.org/doc/new_docs/Agroeco_principles.pdf

Rachel

Ouachita National Forest

Arkansauce–the band and the concept

So, I have a funny story to share. This past spring I was having an argument with my best friend about where to go backpacking for spring break. She wanted to go back to the Smokey Mountains because we had been previously but didn’t really get to see much of them. I, on the other hand, wanted to come to Arkansas. We went back and forth for a couple weeks researching different trails and trying to come up with ways to convince each other, and, well ultimately she won (but by that point it felt like a mutual decision). We went to the Smokey’s and had honestly an amazing backpacking trip. However, I still wanted to see Arkansas because, I guess I had just heard great things.

Lo-and-behold, only about a month later I found out that I had gotten a job in Arkansas! If we are going to talk about reality creation….anyways….I figured I would share some pictures of Arkansas and inform everyone that I have been enjoying this state, despite the rocky start at trying to make my way here.

caught this deer mid-tree

We have ‘mountains’, as someone who grew up in Arizona, they are more so just large hills…but, they count

More ‘natural’ stand of pine trees (1st picture was in the seed orchard)

……As for what Arkansas and this internship has been like since I’ve been here…..

This truly is the natural state and I have become acquainted with much of it. Through my process of driving around trying to find milkweed, to doing plant collections in natural areas, to just general exploration on my own, I would say I am getting a lay of the land. I do think I must have brought the rain from New Orleans because everyone in my office tells me this is one of the wettest years in a while. That just goes to show that global weirding is hitting Arkansas.                                                                                                                                             What is global weirding you ask?                                                        Well I’m glad you asked! I went to a lecture a couple months back where the speaker told us that they got better responses when they called it global weirding rather than global warming. I think this is because everyone who pays attention to the weather—which according to the ‘small talk trope’ is everyone—understands that the weather isn’t completely normal, and isn’t going back to whatever normal was in the first place.

The thing about this internship is that wherever you are, and I’m sure other interns can attest to this, you are going to meet people who work in your office (and in town) who have opinions that you don’t share–such as whether climate change is real *eye roll*. This is especially true if you are moving somewhere you didn’t grow up, but it can be the case regardless!

I’m not going to advise anyone to tread lightly necessarily, but take the time to understand the people around you who have opposing views. How else are you going to have a full experience with the forest service/BLM? Talk to the locals! Maybe you’ll scare people off by using the word evolution (I made that mistake in the first week…), but this is your chance to broaden your horizons. And again, I’m not promoting conflict, but take the time to ask people why they believe the things they do and you will get a better idea of how decisions may be made in your office, organizations your office works with, and the local government (which most definitely effects your office).

I’m not entirely sure how I got on that tangent…but the point is that I have grown a bunch since coming to Arkansas. I’ve grown professionally just in terms of working in an office and I’ve grown personally just by talking to people that I wouldn’t have otherwise come into contact with. People that live in Arkansas, and especially people who hunt, understand the importance of conservation, even if they may not be using the same vocabulary as you are. It can be easy to write people off, but I promise you will have a better time if you don’t make a judgement until you really get to talk to someone. I disagree with the expression “People will Surprise you” because if you’re surprised, then you obviously weren’t paying enough attention to the fact that there are all kinds of people everywhere. Just, don’t let stereotypes determine your experience. Make the decision consciously of how you act around people and how you treat them.

Many of us are just out of undergrad and that can be scary! Being in school for so long makes us feel comfortable in that system. Not that I feel like I’m in the real world yet but hey, I don’t have homework. When I get off work I get to make my own homework and really discover what I want to spend my time doing. I’m not going to be cheesy and say that ‘I’m finding myself’ because I know I’m not (was I lost in the first place…) but I did realize that I don’t want to live anywhere else but New Orleans at this point in my life. I did discover that it can be just as easy to make friends as it can be to loose them. And I did discover that 4 months in a new place with new people and completely new tasks really does wire you to think about things differently. As much as I’m missing NOLA and as much as I feel stagnant at times trying to decide what I want to do with my life, I wouldn’t trade my time with CLM in Arkansas for anything.

…Sorry I promised I wouldn’t get cheesy…

To apologize, here is a picture of some seeds because aren’t seeds beautiful?

Rachel

Ouachita National Forest

Satisfying Tasks and a Real Life Scavenger Hunt

This past month (this is from July-but August has been similar) has just been a large hodgepodge of different things from collecting seeds, searching for milkweed, counting Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) plants, helping with vegetation surveys, and doing lots of herbarium work.

Herbarium work is really relaxing and satisfying because you have a tangible product at the end. I’ve already finished a couple audible books while gluing plants. One that was particularly relevant to read was Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I would highly recommend reading this book, especially as you are working with plants! The whole concept is whether we really domesticated plants or if they domesticated us….

Just a beautiful botany sheet

As for seed collecting, I’ve been collecting seeds at the seed orchard that is part of the Ouachita National Forest (I talked about this place in my last blog post). It’s a great place for wildflowers because the sun can reach the ground unlike most of the rest of the forest that, due to past human manipulation, has a closed canopy. I’ve collected, with the help of Corey, the intern with the Ozark National Forest, a lot of pale purple cone flower ‘cones’ that I have been slowly working the seeds out of. My desk is covered in seeds by this point.

 

 

This was my first monarch sighting. And it was on milkweed! Ascelpias tuberosa

Searching for milkweed has been a big task too because there isn’t much information about where it actually grows in the forest, and even when it is found there is a low chance that it will actually have seed pods. (See below for one that I found with two pods that had no insect damage!) For this I’ve been  wrestling with GIS. I’m trying to use information on known locations of milkweed to make some predictions of where they may be found. I’m trying to use soil type, species composition, and slope. The only issue with my method is that there is a low chance that all the information is up to date. I’ll let you know if I find any using this technique! I’m excited to see if I can find plants this way.

Asclepias variegata in the forest. Aren’t milkweed pods so strange looking?

One day I was able to go out scouting for possible flowers to collect seed from later in the year. I was able to snap these two pictures below.

See the spider?

Pollination at work at the seed orchard

That’s all for now! Look out for my August update soon.

Rachel Froehlich

Ouachita National Forest

Seed Orchards and the oddity that is Hot Springs, AR

I’m not sure where other interns are located but being with the Ouachita National Forest means that I live in this town called Hot Springs, named after the national park that is within it. Hot Springs National Park is the smallest park in the country but that doesn’t mean they skip out on the opportunity to be touristy. In fact, this is Central Ave stocked full of over priced boutiques as well as the famous national park bath houses (white buildings)

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Seeing as this is my first week of work and I’ll be in Chicago next week, I don’t have a full grasp on what I will do doing during the summer. However, that doesn’t mean this week has been slow. Tuesday and Wednesday were full of meetings with the Regional Geneticist who is in town to talk about the progress and future directions of the seed orchard.

If you don’t know what a seed orchard is, don’t worry because I had no clue that they existed either until this week. This one, that is about 45 minutes from Hot Springs, is one of 7 (I think?) in this region of the country that grows pine trees for the sole purpose of being able to collect seeds for restoration projects and things of that sort. The main purpose of the Ouachita Seed Orchard is to grow short-leaf pine (Pinus echinata) because unfortunately throughout the 1900’s the forests were devastated (Ben Rowland–handout from meeting). In the 60’s people started to realize the need to create stocks of high quality trees for future forest regeneration and this is why the seed orchards were created. The thing about pine seeds is that don’t last long, even when stored in frozen seed vaults (personal communication with Barb Crane) so it is necessary to maintain live trees in orchards so that the genetic variation isn’t lost.

(screenshot of my instagram story of the seed orchard because I didn’t take a real picture) –see how they are in rows? Stops the spread of disease from one tree to the next

The national forests are interesting because they need to combine the interests of loggers/hunters with the inherent value of the forest. This means that when the original ‘superior’ trees were selected for the orchard they looked at traits for loggers (how straight the trees are and how parallel the branches are) as well as health of the trees (disease resistance, survival, germination rates, etc).

All this talk about the importance of seed saving made me think of the seed vault in Svalbard. I decided to look on their website to see if they carry any tree species and they do! Although their main purpose is to focus on crops, in 2015 they did receive some pine and spruce seeds (Kinver). How long these seeds will stay viable in the bank, only time will tell. The importance of maintaining healthy plants that are producing seeds is obvious even with these seed banks. However, because of climate change the seed orchard may be at risk.

Something that was talked about a lot on Tuesday was the fact that shortleaf and loblolly pine are hybridizing. Usually due to temporal differences in time of pollination the rate of hybridization is less than 5% but in some areas the rate has been shown to be 40% (Tourer et al). It is theorized that this is because of warming that is altering the pollination cycle. To keep the species in the seed orchard pure more research needs to be done about why this is happening but also the fitness of these hybrids.However, what type of tree will be desirable in the future is unknown, making it hard to come up with strategies.

Regardless, this week I came away with a lot of knowledge of pine trees in the region but even more questions! What does the future of forest regeneration look like, especially with global warming. Should we allow these trees to hybridize and where are the arguments on either side coming from? Short leaf pine makes for better wood so you know the loggers don’t want the hybrids. Will it be impossible to keep pure trees and should we even continue trying to plant only pure trees out in the field?

Let’s just say my first week has shown me that learning doesn’t just stop when school ends, which for me was about three weeks ago. And that my blog posts may end up being mini research papers…hope you learned something!

P.S Something that I found really funny is the fire fighters share a building in the seed orchard and they converted an old green house into a gym–pictured below–Hope you find it as humorous as I did

Kinver, Mark. “Forest Tree Seeds Arrive at Svalbard’s ‘Doomsday Vault’.” BBC News, BBC, 2 Mar. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31661288.

Tauer, Charles G., et al. “Hybridization Leads to Loss of Genetic Integrity in Shortleaf Pine: Unexpected Consequences of Pine Management and Fire Suppression.” Journal of Forestry, vol. 110, no. 4, 2012, pp. 216–224., doi:10.5849/jof.11-044.

Ouachita National Forest