The title in layman’s terms is really pronounced, “Whatta ya wanna do that for” driving my spellcheck into utter meltdown. It’s a common phrase used by folks who don’t understand a decision, idea or action. It’s exactly what farmers (and even my own family!) say when I bring up the idea of adding or restoring wetland complexes on farmland.
In retrospect, I was a critic of wetland restoration initially too, but converted as I discovered the benefits of adding more diversity to the farm. As with anything, I’ve also been influenced by my learning environment. I believe my interest started with my Grandpa Steele’s love for the Nine Mile Swamp and picked up steam as I read chapters from Louis Bromfield’sMalabar Farm, which vividly describes the majestic ponds and wetlands that fed many people’s appetites for fish, watercress and fresh mint.
Since gaining perspective from Holistic Management principles and working with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition’s (USC) water quality team of wetland, stream and Ag professionals, I now see first-hand the advantages to adding wetlands back into the equation, one being the ability to regenerate the water cycle for my downstream neighbors. While this sounds like a glowing endorsement, my main motivations for adding shallow emergent marshes to my organic grazing operation were born out of the holistic goal to “to create a savannah for wildlife” (and I suppose selfish desire—because I just wanted to).
My thought process in pursuing this conservation measure in 2012 went something like this: Is my fenced off area a good site? Who will help me plan and implement this vision? How do I draw the species I want to the habitat? Am I planting trees? How does it function during the seasons? Are there maintenance requirements? Can I graze it? What will it cost? And what will it look like when my grandchildren romp around in it?
I embarked on this wetland journey away from your traditional governmental conservation programs and payments, choosing instead to freelance with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition Wetland Team comprised of Wetland Coordinator Melissa Yearick, Wetland Biologist and Planner Patrick Raney, and Watershed Coordinator/wetland expert extraordinaire Jim Curatolo. This hands-on process helped me understand the goals, nuances, and challenges of implementing a wetland plan.
I have to say they were a patient bunch as I argued for open water, upland features, adjusting the stream corridor, and the tree and plant species I wanted to incorporate. I equated the process to working with a home landscape designer who would, through computer generation, give me an exact picture of what the final landscape would look like. Wetland planning doesn’t exactly fit this model. As with any planning process, there will be compromises! I found out rather quickly that if land is already exhibiting wetland characteristics before restoration begins, there are certain federal regulations that must be considered. Please check in your local area before starting any project, big or small.
It was no problem adding plant and tree species to enhance my existing wetland area; however part of my grazing paddock inhibited some of the wetland expansion I hoped for. I had a dilemma: grass or marsh? When you start talking about taking pasture away from “The Grass Whisperer,” there will be a work stoppage and much more discussion! I was frustrated by this obstacle, but after some thought, feature changes, and flagging out the proposed project, we were only disturbing about a tenth of an acre.
As it just so happened, the big dig occurred on my birthday, June 22, (which is a present that will keep on giving). Before I left for work I could tell by the expression on the face of Bill, my local excavator wizard, that he had some trepidation taking orders from the young biologist, Patrick, who wielded a rough drawing, tree spade, and pocket full of wetland seeds and spores. His mixtures included: Purple avens, Shrubby cinquefoil, Great Blue lobelia, Yellow sedge, Ostrich fern, Golden ragwort, Harlequin Blueflag and Cinnamon fern. When I arrived home that evening to a series of dry holes (since we had severe drought in 2012) and excavated topsoil, I remember thinking, “I hope these wet-landers know what they’re doing.”
I checked the site every day after the ground was broken, and over time with rain and Frankenstorm Sandy, the pools filled in nicely, as did the vegetation with Patrick’s complimentary placement of old tree trunks and built up tussocks. Now in 2013, a year has passed since the wetland father, Mr. Curatolo, asked me to keep the faith in his idea: “Build it right and the species will just show up,” he advised. I trusted his premonition because as a grazier if you build a good functioning grass farm, beneficial flora and fauna also just show up.
The days of reckoning on this decision to add a wetland complex came to me in two very different environments. As I watched spring abound this year, I saw a pair of mallards using the little pools. I witnessed deer frequenting the area and bedding down. And with profound enjoyment, I finally have polliwogs, frogs, salamanders, a blue heron, and several species of plants with brilliant color and diversity.
Probably the more significant purpose of a wetland is to slow down and retain flood waters which unfortunately impacted our area in June and July with over 15 inches of rain. My project and associated upstream native wetland, coupled with our good grass cover, performed admirably and surely saved soil and road culvert blow-outs. When Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension surveyed me about damage on the farm from flooding, I proudly replied we had no significant damage other than debris caught in fences and silt nourishing our grasslands. I feel with this crazy weather the systems approach, which includes permanent cover, forests, hedgerows, riparian areas and a robust cadre of livestock, wildlife and soil biology is a sustainable strategy for the future.
My intent here is to stimulate conversation and consideration for adding or enhancing some type of wetland complex on the farm, be it a vernal pool, marsh or fen. The price to build such a nature-friendly practice—just $800 in my case—is far outweighed by soil and water retention, insect eating capacity, species diversity and picture-taking opportunities.
So the next time someone asks you, “What do you want to build a wetland for?” you can share my story or call the professionals at the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. Hey, who knows, if you have a really good spot, the wetland team might even build it for free!
Previously published on the Cornell Small Farms Program blog.