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John Quinn, Furman University

Mar 20, 2015
Dr. John Quinn

Dr. John Quinn

A lot of your research is focused on conservation in agricultural systems. Why is this important?

I believe that biodiversity conservation in agricultural systems is important for three reasons. First, rates of biodiversity loss are well past any sustainable threshold. This loss has moral, functional, and economic implications for human and natural systems. Second, given the extent of agriculture globally (~40% of terrestrial ice-free surface), it is essential we identify how to strike a balance between farming and conservation on these lands. Lastly, as eloquently summarized by Wendell Berry, conservationists must eat.

The core of my conservation research is identification of how agricultural land use and land cover patterns shape bird abundance, diversity, and breeding success. We have successfully shown that organic farming and other farm-scale practices can benefit bird populations, but that conservation in agroecosystems needs to include broader spatial scales.

DICK from AmyWhat is the Healthy Farm Index?

Monitoring change on the farm over time is important to understanding and benefiting from the biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, farming and nature are both complex systems. Choosing what to monitor, how to choose targets for change, and how to translate this data into something meaningful are all challenging. Existing farm assessment tools emphasize economics, inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation water, or conservation of abiotic resources (e.g., soil and water). The Health Farm Index provides a user-friendly tool for farmers to assess current biodiversity on the farm and monitor change over time. In addition, the HFI allows farmers to set targets for change and communicate their success to others.

NET bird photo 2011How is this tool different from other assessment tools for farmers?

The HFI is different in two ways. First, it focuses on biodiversity and ecosystems services rather than soil and water. Because of this focus, we feel it captures a missing part of the farm, and provides a bridge between conservation biology and farming. The HFI serves as a vehicle to improve a farmer’s knowledge of the farm, and provides a means to record what they know and encourage them to learn something new. A second difference is that it is a farm-scale assessment tool. There are larger-scale tools that aggregate across farms, but these are not always useful for a farmer and their individual decision-making.

What are some of the anticipated outcomes of its use?

Ultimately, it can bring stronger dialogue between farmers and conservation biologists and increasingly sustainable farming systems. Proximately, knowledge, attitude, and behavior change for both farmers and conservation biologists. The hope is the awareness of how small changes can have a large impact will change attitudes towards conserving biodiversity (both for use and non-use value). This change in attitude could lead to behavior change that benefits the farm system. The same arc may be possible as non-farmers realize the potential contribution of agricultural lands to local and regional biodiversity conservation efforts.

What information from farms is taken into account when calculating the index, and how is the final score calculated (in layman’s terms)?

As noted above, the HFI is focused on metrics of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The information necessary for this assessment is drawn first from information many organic farmers already monitor (e.g., crop rotations, farm maps). We then add measures of native species and habitat diversity, specifically birds and non-crop habitats. To make the HFI broadly applicable, the HFI indicators were selected to be broadly applicable. For example, birds are wide Quinn at GPFspread in the state, and crop rotations are a discussion point on every farm. In general the basic set of indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem services used in the HFI are data readily available to farmers (e.g., yield, cropping patterns), easy to sample with little training (bird communities), or straightforward to obtain from available data sources (e.g., Google Earth land cover images). In addition, indicators and indicator targets can be adapted to the location of a farm, available resources and labor, and objectives of the individual.

The Healthy Farm Index allows farmers to focus on pragmatic goals for each indicator, to select suitable targets, and over time, to examine emerging tradeoffs and synergies. Targets can be selected from available data for the farming region or set in a collaborative decision-making process involving local farmers, researchers, Extension educators and others interested in sustainable systems. Importantly, the HFI does not encourage farmers to maximize biodiversity but rather to restore and maintain a level of diversity beneficial to the farm and local ecosystem, and that contributes to local and regional conservation efforts. The HFI score should reflect the landscape of the farm and the management goals of the farmer. For example, a farm embedded in a wooded riparian area would not have the same grassland bird indicator targets as a farm found adjacent to protected grassland.

 You tested the calculator on organic farms. Is there a reason for that?

In my experience, organic farmers are a naturally experimental group and thus willing to work with us to integrate multiple ideas embedded in the index. In addition, organic farmers have adopted many practices that enhance the measures we were considering as part of the index. At the same time, not all organic farms are the same, allowing for likely greater diversity in the HFI scores.

Is this also a useful tool for conventional farmers?

Yes! It is a good way for organic farmers to share practices with their neighbors and communicate why they are valuable to farming broadly.

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