The Practice of Natural History as a Farm Management ToolI don’t know a single farmer, regardless of the scale at which they grow- whether it be 400 acres or 40 square feet—that does not appreciate the nature they encounter every day on the farm. Unfortunately, too few of us engage those experiences and put them to work for the benefit of our land and purpose. Nature will impact our operations every single day and too often we neglect our roles in those processes. We can and should embrace nature on our farms through the practice of Natural History and employ our relationship with it as a farm management tool.
Tom Fleischner, Ecologist and Professor at Prescott College founded The Natural History Institute also based in Prescott, Arizona and defined Natural History as: “A practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” He also taught me the importance of careful observation while I was studying Natural History as an ungraduated student at Prescott College. It was at this time, that I also learned that Natural History is the foundation of the Science of Ecology. Now, three decades later, as I work to build and support an ecologically functional farm, I have rediscovered the importance of Natural History and how my focused observation and receptivity can be employed as a farm management tool. Like a good pair of fence pliers, Natural History can be a tool that is employed in numerous areas of farm management. The practice of Natural History has benefited everything from my farms design and layout to soil building, pest and pathogen management and pollination. Even my post-harvest practices have been improved through my participation in Natural History on the farm.
My journey into Natural History began as a child. I would stay summers on my grandparents Southwestern Iowa Farm. Most every morning, right after a cup of coffee and the morning crop report on the radio, my grandfather would walk out to the edge of a field or pasture and scoop up a handful of Iowa topsoil and smell it. He would let it fall between his fingers and then nod his head and mumble some words of wisdom I did not, at the time, understand.
Decades later, I realized, that my grandfather was practicing Natural History by observing his place in the world. About the same time, I was studying ecological restoration and had the pleasure to work with Dr. Peter Bowler at the University of California, Irvine and remember Peter telling me that “we can only be lucky enough to get to know a small piece of land intimately.” The idea that we can ever really know an ecosystem or section or more, intimately, is not likely. My Grandfather knew his home well and that came from continuous observation, receptivity and recording what he saw.
I farm on rented land and may never be able to know a place like my Grandfather did, but I can try. I do so by observing regularly and recording everything. While at Prescott College, I learned to keep a Grinnell Style field journal and continue to use this “old school” method to this day. I have tried other types and styles of journals and have even taken my lap top out into the field to record digital data sheets but it has never served me as well as using this tried and true method created by the pioneering Naturalist Joseph Grinnell.
I carry with me a small pocket sized field note book. Usually this is a 2.5” by 4” or so top bound booklet. Most of these are swag I picked up at EcoFarm or some other conference and they serve me well. I record in these notebooks the bugs, birds, weather, and other observed phenomena using my own forms of shorthand. I also jot down the activities I participate in and experiences I have.
Later, when I have some quiet time, I transfer the information in my pocket notebook to a larger format journal in which I record, expand upon and even analyze what I encountered, engaged in and interacted with throughout my time on and around the farm. This is the very same process I utilized as a Naturalist and Wilderness Guide or a Restoration Ecologist while restoring wetlands and riparian forests along the Santa Ana River Watershed.
I have worked this transfer and recording of information into the daily “closing” procedures of my farm. Usually sometime after dinner and before bed I pull out my field notes and my field journal and transfer the days information into the small 3 ring notebook using the style and process first developed by Joseph Grinnell and utilized by countless Naturalists since. I describe the material, style and process of maintaining a Grinnell Style field journal below.
The 3-ring binder
I have previously described the pocket notebook, and as the field notes can be taken on just about anything, I will go directly to the actual field journal now. I use a 5.5 inch by 8.5 inch 3-ring binder. They are readily available at your local office supply store which generally carries paper this size also. In fact, I have found that I can get both plain unlined paper as well as college ruled paper at my local Staples. The Avery Mini Binder with a 1” binding holds up to 200 sheets of paper and can be purchased for about $10 at Target or Staples.
When transferring field notes to your journal and using the Grinnell Method, create a 1” margin on the left side and a 1” margin on top of each sheet of paper. Write your name (Last name) and year at the top left hand corner. Write the month and day just below that. Across the top margin, to the right of the left side margin, record location of observations. Be specific such as “Windy River Farm, Half Acre Field at 4th St. and Temescal Ave. Norco CA.” Label every page this way.
Record all of your observations in detail on the remaining 4.5”X 7.5” area. Write on only one side of the paper. Some sources suggest using the other side of the paper for sketches and pictures, however, I have found it simpler to use just one side for everything.
I have found it useful to underline species of plants and animals as I record them. I use a squiggly line when recording the common names of plants and animals and a straight line when recording scientific names of species. This process helps when returning to the journal later. For my feeble mind, it also helps me describe a bigger picture of the scene I am observing while still focusing on the details.
I also find it useful to record weather observations, times of day observations were made and activities going on at the site that day. I also record all of the tasks I completed or attempted that day. In other words, I try to paint as complete a picture of the world in my view at that moment as I can. Combining records of the natural phenomena with my actions and interferences, provides a more useful and holistic picture of my farms world.
Over time, the relationships between plants, animals, weather, people, seasons, bugs, and soil begin to tell a story. The practice of Natural History is learning to read that story as it unfolds in front of you.
I find that I now notice the little things in my space quickly. The nibbled edges of a bell pepper leaf, ants at the base of a Brussel sprout stalk, wet spots in soil that hasn’t been irrigated recently. These subtle events help me plan my integrated pest management program, irrigation management and compost applications.
I also see and understand bigger occurrences on my farm that help to paint a picture of time and space. I have come to expect the Fall arrival of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the live oak at the southwest corner of my field or the Spring emergence of the deep green shoots of wild Brodiaea in my front pasture. These kinds of events, over the past decade, have coincided with planting and harvest times, and now serve as reminders of seasonal tasks I must complete on the farm.
The reminders extend beyond on farm tasks. I know when my late-season Rubidoux Peaches ripen, its time to get out my battery powered lights for the farmers market booth.
Speaking of late season peaches, the practice of natural history has also helped me track differences occurring due to the changing climate. Over the past several years, I have witnessed earlier flowering and ripening of stone fruit crops. I have witnessed peach and nectarine varieties setting fruit and ripening almost a month earlier in 2021 than they did in 2014 and this phenomena has continued in the years since.
The Practice of Natural History is at the heart of my pest and pathogen management planning and implementation. Monitoring is a key element in all Integrated Pest Management programs and through my purposeful observation and recording of the life in my fields I have developed a strong IPM program. I have recorded the first occurrence of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs in my fields, the annual emergence of squash bugs as well as the growing population of Green Lacewings and other beneficial insects. As I observed my fields over the past 12 years I watched the population of rodents (squirrels, rats and gophers) decrease as the population of screech and barn owls increased.
I have implemented the Practice of Natural History into all aspects of my farm planning, design and management. In fact, I have made the practice of Natural History, A core aspect of my life on and off the farm as a way to better understand, interact with and claim my place in the natural world. I will continue to add examples and experiences to this blog in the seasons to come.