By Priscilla Wentworth and Susan McQuilkin, SMADC
Increasingly farmers are up against wildlife management for both crop damage and food safety. As wildlife habitat areas near production fields are being cleared, we are dramatically changing farming landscape. Across the U.S., researchers are now realizing that eradicating habitat around farm fields is not necessarily making food safer from pathogens. For example, it has been noted that farms which cleared away wildlife habitat, after the west coast spinach scare contamination, E. Coli became more common.
There seems to be value in living with the natural vegetation of the land and using it to your advantage in farming. For a while it seemed agriculture moved away from this model and we still see buyers demanding unrealistic food safety standards.
Perhaps, finding ways to coexist might ultimately be the best way to preserve wildlife and ensure farming practices that promote stewardship of the land. How might we best coexist with the true owners of the land, the creatures of the wild?
A few promising practices to deter wildlife
- planting low-risk crops between leafy green vegetables and pathogen sources (e.g., grazeable lands)
- buffering farm fields with noncrop vegetation to filter pathogens from runoff
- attracting livestock away from upstream waterways with water troughs, food supplements, and feed
- creating secondary treatment wetlands and high-intensity grazing operations
- exposing compost heaps to high temperatures through regular turning to enhance soil fertility without compromising food safety
- maintaining diverse wildlife communities with fewer competent disease hosts (For these tips and more from this source see here and here.)
Producers of vegetables and fruits may also consider planting low-risk crops (requiring cooking before consumption) like corn and sweet potatoes as buffers along perimeters where wildlife graze and enter the fields. And reserve the middle sections of the fields for the high-risk crops (most commonly consumed raw) like tomatoes or textured surface vegetables such as broccoli that can host harmful bacteria. More information about high-risk and low-risk crops from Maryland Department of Agriculture can be found here.
Additionally, fencing, hoop houses, high tunnels, and greenhouses – although not the perfect solution – can help to minimize exposure of crops to pests and wildlife. Additionally, a landowner or agricultural lessee of a farm, may request that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) investigate damage caused by deer for the purpose of having the Department reduce the deer population in the area. Factors such as time of year and deer population are considered for crop damage permits.
For many farmers keeping food safe is a precarious balance between realistic, achievable safe agricultural practices and the need to be profitable, or at least break even! Producers of vegetables, fruits, and livestock are not the only farmers experiencing profit loss from wildlife damage. Some in the Maryland agritourism industry are intentionally planting food “sacrifice areas” or “food plots” for deer to protect their corn mazes and agricultural education plots. Many farms depend on these seasonal sales for year-round survival.
Where we seek to upset the balance of nature we often create bigger problems as a result, so it behooves us to find ways to live alongside the wildlife while keeping our food safe and farms profitable.