PEI

P.E.I. potato farmers plant flower-filled 'refuge fields' for pollinators

A growing number of P.E.I. potato farmers are planting small fields of flowers and other plants to provide a friendly spot for pollinators. Researchers are also hoping the plants will have some added benefits when the next crop of potatoes goes into the fields.

'I was so pleased how it turned out last year, I thought, let's do it again'

Vernon Campbell, left, of Mull Na Bienne Farm, has planted his second pollinator refuge field this year on an acre of land in Springbrook, P.E.I. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

A growing number of P.E.I. potato farmers are planting small fields of flowers and other plants to provide a friendly spot for bees and other pollinators. 

Researchers at the P.E.I. Potato Board are also hoping the plants will have some added benefits when the next crop of potatoes goes into those fields.

Vernon Campbell of Mull Na Bienne Farms has planted his second pollinator refuge field, on an acre of land in Springbrook, P.E.I.

Campbell calls it "the right thing to do."

"I was so pleased how it turned out last year, I thought: 'Let's do it again,'" Campbell said.

The plants in the refuge field flower at different times in the summer, and provide a food source for honeybees, native bee species and other native pollinators. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"This is kind of a poorer section of the field and we didn't need it all in the barley, so we left a portion of the field and planted this pollinator mix."

Low maintenance

The mix in Campbell's field includes seven pollinator species: barley, timothy, alsike clover, yellow blossom sweet clover, bird's-foot trefoil and phacelia. 

The plants flower at different times over the summer, and provide a food source for honeybees, native bee species and other native pollinators.

After the first season, some of the annual plants such as barley will die down, but other plants will come back for a second year, making the fields low maintenance for the farmers.

The mix in Campbell's field includes seven pollinator species, including barley, timothy, alsike clover, double-cut red clover, yellow blossom sweet clover, bird's-foot trefoil and phacelia, which are the purple flowers. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

'Alive with bees'

Campbell first saw a pollinator refuge field at a Cavendish Farms research day. 

"They had a small plot of the same mixture and I couldn't believe the amount of bees that were in it, all foraging and all happy," Campbell said.

His first field, last summer, had the same result. 

The yellow flower is bird's-foot trefoil, in a pollinator refuge field at Dock Corner Farms in Elmsdale, P.E.I. (Submitted by the P.E.I. Potato Board)

"In the refuge itself, it was just alive with bees later in the summer. You could almost hear them buzz when you were approaching," Campbell said.

"It made me feel good to be able to do something for the pollinators because they're under extreme pressure, and in food production we need them."

Healthier soil

The P.E.I. Potato Board is also very interested in the potential benefits of pollinator refuge fields, working with growers using the mixes to try to improve their soil. 

"It's planting that diversity of species that can do different things for the soil characteristics, that help with feeding the soil microbes, that help with soil compaction, that help with fixing nitrogen," said Ryan Barrett, research and agronomy specialist with the board.

"That will then, in future years, help feed the potato crop, or feed the other crops that are being grown." 

The Compton Brothers near Bangor, P.E.I. have planted this pollinator-friendly mix, which includes sunflowers and phacelia, among other species. (Submitted by the P.E.I. Potato Board)

Barrett said there are a growing number of potato farmers planting the mixes, some through the board, but others out of their own interest.

"Then we're going back and assisting them with doing the soil sampling, doing yield testing, to try and assess what some of these different crops do, in terms of affecting next year's crop."

Pollinators and potatoes

The board hopes to have some answers soon on what mixes offer the most benefits to pollinators and potatoes, from a couple of projects that started last summer.

The pollinator refuge field is also part of the P.E.I. Farm Tour, which features dozens of signs placed in roadside fields across the Island. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"A lot of those fields are in potatoes this year," Barrett said.

"So starting this fall, when we start doing the yield sampling, we'll start getting some good data."

Barrett said the pollinator refuge fields have other benefits as well.

This is the second year of a multi-species mixture at MacAulay Farms in Strathcona, P.E.I. The yellow flowered plant is sweet clover, but the mixture also includes alfalfa, timothy, and other clovers. (Submitted by the P.E.I. Potato Board)

"Maybe it's a corner of the field that isn't very productive, and planting wheat or barley or peas wouldn't make a lot of money on that acre anyway, so plant something like this in it, that looks great," Barrett said.

"There's beneficial beetles and other insects that would also be living in these types of refuges, that eat Colorado potato beetles or other types of insects that we don't want in our fields."

Barrett said pollinator refuge fields are also becoming more common in many countries around the world. 

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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