The Lamoille River, which starts in the mountains of Stannard, Vermont, and drops 1600 feet while running westward across most of the state until entering Lake Champlain above Burlington, waters much of northern Vermont. Normally a mild and pleasant watercourse, it occasionally becomes a dangerous torrent, most recently in August, 2011 when Hurricane Irene dropped almost 3.5 inches of rain in Burlington during 24 hours.
John and Nancy Hayden, owners of The Farm Beyond on the edge of Jeffersonville, Vermont, right across State Route 15 from the river, saw the Lamoille rise until it flooded the highway and coursed onto their land, flooding some of their outbuildings and vegetable crops. Fortunately for them, they designed their farm with some forethought about weather extremes (they met at Syracuse University, taking environmental science courses) and life returned to normal after the waters receded. For many farmers, however, it was a wake up call about neglecting nature.
John grew up on Long Island and ever since being a kid was involved in nature and ecology.
“My earliest memories,” he recalls, “are me out in the back yard on my knees looking at ants – just being fascinated by them. After college I joined the Peace Corps and went to Mali. They put me in agriculture because I’d studied entomology. That’s when I fell in love with agriculture.
“I saw how pesticides are being abused there,” he continues. “They didn’t really have pest problems, but the farmers were given the chemicals and equipment anyway, with no safety concerns. They were using stuff way more powerful than any problems they had.”
Nancy joined the Peace Corps and went to Kenya, so they had a long distance love relationship in Africa with letters and an occasional visit. Upon returning to the States they got married and John went to Michigan State Ag School, where he got a masters in entomology while Nancy got her PhD in Environmental Engineering.
“I worked there six years,” Hayden explains, “doing research and working with the Extension Service on Integrated Pest Management. But thirty years ago, in the Extension service, people only knew a little bit about bees. I felt I was working within a system that needed more than tweaking, so when Nancy was offered a job here at the University of Vermont 25 years ago I decided to try to do something myself as a farmer.”
The couple bought a farmhouse on 18 open acres of what had been a large dairy farm. Having been hayed without much reinvestment ever since the dairy went out of business, it was all in reed canary grass and the soil was in pretty bad shape.
“So we transitioned,” John relates. “We’re really interested in healing the land. We’ve been working on it for 25 years, trying to come up with a model that is ecologically sound and economically viable. The idea of Regenerative Agriculture – sequestering carbon, cleaning the water, enhancing our soils, creating biodiversity – is interesting to me.”
The pair decided to start with livestock. They raised a thousand meat birds a year, had a 50 ewe flock of sheep and were raising heifers, rabbits, pigs, 200 laying hens, turkeys. Their manure and grazing was great for bringing fertility back to the land and knocked the reed canary grass into just the wet areas.
The Haydens also raised 4 kids there, two ‘homemade’ boys and two adopted girls.
“Then as our kids got older and fertility came back,” Hayden recalls, “we started planting vegetables. We had a 24 member CSA, opened a farm stand. But the vegetables were a lot of hard work and we were getting older. And everything with them was urgent!
“So we got more into fruit,” he continues. “We think a lot about resilience here – how are we going to handle the different stresses: climate change, flooding issues? The river is across the road. We ended up doing 8 years with livestock, 8 years with vegetables, and now 8 years with fruit.”
It took Nancy’s job to pay for the mortgage, get health care and raise the 4 kids. But now she has left her job and the farm is their entire income. They are growing more and more fruit and have started an extensive nursery. They like growing stuff, they say, and are just trying to keep the quality of life they like!
John’s early fascination with insects has never left him, however.
“We had this realization about 8 or 10 years ago,” he says, “that the pollinators were declining mostly the native bees. We’d go into a field in the seasons prior to that and we’d hear all this buzzing. But then it was just a buzz here and there. So we thought: ‘we should start being more proactive in planting crops and building habitat for pollinators’. So we have been doing that.
“We don’t use chemicals,” he continues, “even organic ones. Entrust, from Dow, for instance, is highly toxic to pollinators. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it won’t wreak havoc on your ecosystem. I think their decline is because of all the chemicals around us plus the others stresses on them. Fungicides are harmful to bees. The neonic pesticides are really bad for the environment, plus diseases and viruses and parasites like nosema. So first off, put away the pesticides.
“Another thing is to plant floral resources,” he concludes, “so they have food throughout the whole season. You want to have as many different things blooming at different times as you can. Also you want to create nesting habitats. A lot of people, when they think of habitats, think of hives. But there are a lot of different bees and they like different habitats. That is definitely a limiting factor. I am doing research with a SARE farmer grant right now on trying to create various types of habitats. There are various types of bees, social and solitary, and they all have different nesting needs.”
Solitary bees, Hayden explains, do not swarm, form colonies, produce honey, or have a queen. Each female lays eggs but does not tend them through growth. Most nest underground, but some nest in above ground structures like trees. They do not produce wax, instead constructing cells of mud or other materials. They feed on nectar for their energy, but collect pollen for protein needed by the brood, mixing it with a small bit of nectar and packing it into a cell before laying an egg in it. They do not have pollen baskets, as honeybees do, so lose more pollen than social bees. This, however, makes them excellent pollinators. A single red mason bee, for instance, is equal to over 100 honeybees in pollination services.
John has built a number of orchard, or Mason, bee houses. The bee is native to North America, with an Eastern sub-species and a Western sub-species. (There are mason bee varieties all around the world, though.) Mason Bee houses are essentially a protected group of tubes. The adults will emerge in the spring, collect pollen, make a ball of it in a tube like a large drinking straw, and lay an egg in it. (In nature, of course, they might use hollow stems of plants instead of straws.) Then they will seal the opening with mud and make another one. They do this down through the whole straw so there are six or seven eggs in the straw. Each bee will fill several straws. The eggs develop in their cocoon and spend most of the summer as larvae. In the fall they pupate, undergo metamorphosis, and in the spring come out of their tubes.
The adults only live 4 to 6 weeks. The bees determine whether an egg will be a male or female the fertilized ones are the females and the unfertilized ones are male. Female eggs are laid farthest back in the tube, with the drones toward the front. The ratio is about 50/50 male and female. The drones emerge first and wait around to fertilize the females.
Their nest has to be within 100 yards or so from the plants you want them to pollinate, but they are much better pollinators than honeybees. They fly in cooler weather, are out earlier for things like cherries and plums, and visit more flowers – something like 12 times more flowers. Nobody has researched if these bees communicate as to where a good pollen source is, although John suspects they do.
The USDA is helping him put out the orchard bee nest boxes on different orchards and farms around the state. They are trying to find out what native bee populations are around.
Ground Nesting Bees
Hayden is also doing research on ground nesting bees. They have the same kind of solitary bee life cycle as the mason bees do – feeding on a little nectar for them but pollen for the brood but lay their eggs in holes in the ground. They like a sloping south-facing sandy soil and will make little tunnels coming off of these holes, laying an egg in each one.
John is testing three variants of ground nests for them. The first is simply holes in the ground, the second involves a little tent over the holes in which he keeps the bees in for a day, and in the third he keeps the bees for three days.
“These are called cellophane or plaster bees,” he explains. “That is because they line their nests with a clear cellophany material. It makes them waterproof and maybe keeps ants out. The genus is ‘colletes’. They are good at all the early season fruit. In the tents I have some early blossoms here in water, for food for them.
“I made these holes,” he continues, “and I’m seeing what the bees are doing. I put the bucket here to protect them from ants. Our soil here is more silty than sandy, so I dug this areas out for a couple of feet and brought in sand. The others use our soil. That is one of the things we are finding out, how well can you create sandy soils for this purpose. I’m excited to see there is some fresh digging besides my holes. I caught individual adults and brought them here in a container and released them for each trial.
“Here is the third progression of these ground nests,” he concludes. “In this one I caught 20 adults, kept them here for three days under that net, providing early box elder and willow blossoms. We are trying to find the way that works to encourage them with the least amount of effort on our part. We are starting to see some holes. We will have an idea if any of these really work by next spring. To do actual research we will replicate them and try them on different farms.”
Social bees like honey bees and bumble bees of course work together. There are many types and they have various behaviors, but generally there is one queen who is tended and produces eggs for the colony, with workers and drones serving her needs. Honeybees are the primary example of social bees. They are good pollinators for some things John feels – cucubits and, on a nice day, apples. But for blueberries, forget it! Their tongues aren’t long enough to get in the flower well. If there is not much else around they will force themselves to do it. But native bees do most of the work on blueberries.
“I love honeybees,” he says. “We have a lot of hives and I like the honey. But when people say ‘Save the bees’ they are automatically thinking honeybees. That’s like me saying to you: ‘We have to save the birds. Let’s start with chickens!’ Chickens and honey bees are domesticated animals, not even from around here.”
Bumble bee queens are mated at the end of the season. They overwinter in the ground or in hollow, rotting barns or trees and emerge in the spring with a lot of work to do to find a suitable nest site, collect pollen, lay eggs, brood those eggs by keeping them warm, all while foraging back and forth all by herself for 22 days until the first workers hath out. At the end of the season the colony sends out a bunch of virgin queens and drones. They mate and the queens will then find a place to overwinter – a compost pile or whatever.
“We make these things,” Hayden says, “called ‘bumble-cultures’ — places where they can tuck their way in and be safe. We use the name because it is similar to ‘hugelkultur’. They are raised beds for growing which are attractive to bumblebees. We overwinter some plants in a trench, fill it in with branches, and it will become attractive to bumblebees as it decomposes. It has lots of nooks and crannies for the queen and we plant a lot of pollinator plants in it. We have five species of native bumblebee here on the property.”
One of the things that the Haydens pay special attention to is raising fodder for pollinators. Without continuous sources of pollen and nectar throughout the season, of ocurse, bees can easily starve.
“This is our pollinator sanctuary — the whole farm is really one,” John gestures at various plants as we walk. “These go from the willow, which is very early, to Witch Hazel, which blooms in October or November. These are honeyberries. They are early bloomers. Cedar waxwings love them and we have to cover them. The fruit is a little tart, but makes a good flavor. We have been experimenting with sunflowers for cover crops. They are late and given that most everything is getting earlier because of climate change, sunflowers are a crucial crop for late pollinators. Jerusalem artichokes are late, and witch hazel is really late.
“We try to raise a lot of things that are good sources for native bees,” he continues. “We like edible landscaping, so we use a lot of fruits. We like the native fruits, and the bees love them. This is aronia. We love it. We blend it with apple cider – 20% aronia juice. They aren’t that sweet but blended with a sweet source they add a lot of flavor. These are native plums. They are very early. These are willows, among the first to flower. Here are box elders, an early flowering tree. We plant them and use them for wood chips for mulching. It’s a way to collect carbon while providing habitat to birds and pollinators. Every farm should have a wild, biodiverse area! We also have a lot of heirloom fruit we are putting in. We have a lot of trees and bushes planted black walnuts, black locusts, hawthorns, for wildlife and pollinators. Black locusts are great for pollinators and the flowers are edible. We make syrups from it. We love black locusts!
“We have 7 different varieties of elderberry we are trialing,” he concludes. “We plant more and more elderberries. This field used to flood all the time. So we decided to put something in here that could withstand the flooding. These are beach plums. They are a great fruit for processing, and it is a good early pollinator plant. It will flower here in early May. A lot of the annuals have longer flowering periods, but perennial fruits have a short burst of a week or 10 days and then they are done. Pussy willows are flowering now. They like wet spots. They just grow into shrubs, not trees. Bayberries are a nitrogen-fixing flowering shrub that is good for pollinators. We do a lot with black currants. We make a cover crop mix with an annual sweet clover we like. That is our riparian zone. A lot of farmers will try to keep such a flowage or ditch clean. We did for a while. But then we realized that was crazy. We let the trees that grow well there survive. We’re trying to get people to ‘celebrate scruffy’ a little more!”
In order to have this wealth of pollinator plants, John and Nancy have developed a considerable nursery containing perennial seedling trees and bushes. They raise fruit trees, native bushes, and pollinator plants – for all of which there is a developing market. John grafts scion wood onto bought root stock. He likes doing a cleft graft if the sizes are quite different, and a whip and tongue if the root stock is small enough to be still flexible. The nursery has been going for three years now and it is up to about a third of the farm’s income.
“We don’t advertise it,” Hayden readily admits. “We like to be a small scale operation. But we have stuff that you can’t easily find elsewhere. We’re growing the business by about 50% a year – we can hardly keep up right now.”
Of course much of the fruit grown on their trees and bushes ends up in products sold by The Farm Between. They are growing thirty different kinds of fruit and particularly like black currants, which grow well for them.
“They are pest free,” says John, “and make a delicious berry. We use it for a syrup with a real complex taste. We have a steam juicer to extract the flavor and go to the farmers market in Burlington with an ice chipper and make snow cones with black currant syrup. We can sell 300 snow cones in a day.”
The couple is planning to turn four greenhouses over to tree fruit this year. They want to grow organic apples with no spray practices, so keeping the rain off them is priority number one, making sure they don’t get apple scab. So they are growing some dwarf apples in a hoop house. The insects haven’t found them yet even though they didn’t even screen the sides! Currently they are growing Honeycrisp, Empire, and IdaRed trees, from which they got huge perfect apples last year. Now they are going to expand into stone fruit, using drip irrigation.
“We haven’t done the numbers to see what the economics might be,” sighs John. “The greenhouse was here already. But it does provide protection for late frost and hail. Native pollinators are working fine here. We also have a high density pear planting. We’re trying to create a pear hedge. People do it with apples on dwarfing rootstocks, but we don’t have posts to support it. We try to do the minimum we can and get away with it.”
Given the amount of knowledge John and Nancy have about ecology, it is not surprising that they are devoting more and more of their time to educating others. They do on farm workshops about Farming on the Wild Side and Pollinator Advocacy already, and John is doing a two-day session with Michael Phillips this year.
“As we get older it seems more important,” he asserts. “We have a vision for a Care Center at our farm stand where you can see posters, play with live caterpillars of Monarch butterflies, and look at observation hives for both honeybees and bumblebees that open up and show you how pollinators live. We’re going to open it to the public and do a lot of signage. We have a non-profit and some people who are interested in helping out.”