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

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