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USDA Project Studies Benefits of Wildflowers on Soil Health

Joel Holland

USDA Agricultural Research Initiative Uses Wildflowers To Improve Soil Health and Supplement Farmer Income.

Lora Perkins, an associate professor at South Dakota State University, is working on a 5-year research project focused on evaluating soil health benefits of wildflowers planted alongside traditional crops. The effort will utilize five specific wildflowers planted next to corn and soybean fields. Funded by nearly half a million dollars from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the study aims to provide quantifiable benefits to farmers to encourage the use of wildflowers as a multifaceted asset while enhancing agricultural sustainability.

Photo Courtesy Roberto Bernardi 

Although explicitly focused on soil health, this wildflower project can benefit farmers in multiple ways, including enhanced crop production, improved farm ecosystem, and the economic viability of wildflower seed sales. In this first year, planted alongside cornfields, will be five species of wildflowers: yellow giant hyssop, white prairie clover, Prairie spiderwort, American licorice, and Rocky Mountain blazing star. The next iteration of the study will plant wildflowers next to soybean fields. These wildflowers are perennials and will return year after year. It is expected that the spatial distribution of each wildflower species will produce varying benefits to soil health. Ideally, the data will supplement currently available information sources about which wildflowers are best suited to each farming scenario, such as the National Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) PLANTS database. By measuring the nitrogen and carbon levels in the soil over multiple growing seasons, data will be gathered and recorded on soil health. Ultimately, the data can be formulated into recommendations for optimized farming applications. There is already funding assistance available through Farm Bill programs to assist farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners to add wildflowers to their lands.

Perkins states, “this is the decade for ecosystem restoration… [and] for any type of soil, any type of condition, there should be a native plant that wants to grow there.” These native wildflowers are adapted to local conditions and should not need fertilizer or irrigation. Native plant’s deep root systems also increase the soil’s capacity to store water, thereby preventing erosion and reducing flooding. Wildflowers reduce air pollution through carbon sequestration and provide shelter and food (nectar, pollen, seeds) for wildlife, promoting biodiversity. Native wildflowers are “four times more attractive to pollinators than non-native wildflowers.” The native plants, acting as bait to draw in pollinators, will consequently result in enhanced crop reproduction and improved yields. About 35 percent of the world’s food crops rely on animal pollinators, including over 100 U.S. grown crops valued at roughly $18 billion.

Photo Courtesy Markus Spiske

Pollinators, including honey bees, are vital for a healthy ecosystem and critical to U.S. crop production. In 2006, experts began noticing a significant decline in U.S. honey bee populations. Diagnosed as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), it was observed that worker bees were abandoning their hives due to stressors including pests, diseases, pesticides, pollutants, nutritional deficits, habitat loss, among others. An increased focus on honey bee health has arrested the population decline, and nearly three million honey bee hives currently exist in the U.S. In 2019, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded $4 million in grants for projects related to pollinator health.

“Many wildflower species have been lost to development and the spread of invasive plants.” Consequently, the current supply of wildflower seeds is unable to meet demand. This situation creates an economic opportunity of cultivating wildflower seeds for sale, producing an additional profit for farmers. Only one wildflower species will be planted in each plot to make the seeds easily harvestable and packaged for sale. These small plots will consist of areas adjacent to farmland with poorer soil quality that is less conducive to corn and soybean production. The overall project aim is to substantiate the benefit of wildflowers on farmland soil health. Farmers should also enjoy improved crop production, an enhanced farm ecosystem, and a secondary income source from wildflower seed sales as a byproduct.

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