N.J. Audubon's novel market approach helps local farmers

Buddy Shimp has 26 acres of sunflowers. The program pays him a good price, and locals prefer seeds grown nearby. Ultimately, farmland is preserved.
Buddy Shimp has 26 acres of sunflowers. The program pays him a good price, and locals prefer seeds grown nearby. Ultimately, farmland is preserved. (SANDY BAUERS / Staff)
Posted: September 05, 2011

This summer, for the first time in recent memory, flocks of meadowlarks and bobolinks are flitting above some fields in Somerset County that Jim Laine farms.

Part of the reason is that 100 miles south in Cumberland County, Buddy Shimp has planted 26 acres of sunflowers.

Both farmers are part of an innovative New Jersey Audubon program to help both farmers and birds. The conservation group is using a novel market approach, paying farmers to grow sunflowers, and then using proceeds from the sale of those seeds to the birdfeeding public to fuel conservation efforts.

The program, Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment, is considered a model for how farming can adapt and survive.

"It allows them to develop a niche for something they're growing on their farm," said New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher. "Something that perhaps will bring them somewhat higher cash value because they're growing for a specialty market."

The program also is seen as a new conservation model.

"Land preservation is an important part of the equation" for conservation, said Troy Ettel, Audubon's director of conservation and stewardship. "The reality is we'll never have the money to do it. One of the ways to preserve farmland is to make it economically viable."

Both farmers and the birds have been facing tough times.

A 2011 American Farmland Trust report found that the Garden State led the nation in the rate of farmland loss between 2002 and 2007. Shimp himself, a fourth-generation farmer who owns 112 acres, has been struggling.

As for the birds, during the last 30 years, grassland species have seen more significant declines than any other group of birds, Ettel said. In New Jersey, 48 percent of the state's endangered birds are grassland birds. For example, the bobolink is threatened in New Jersey, and the meadowlark is a species of concern.

Enter the sunflower, the dinner of choice for many birds that visit backyard birdfeeders, including finches, chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.

Most of what is sold here is trucked 1,500 miles from North and South Dakota, where the flowers' golden heads bob over nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland.

In New Jersey, the sunflower has remained pretty much just a garden species.

But four years ago, New Jersey Audubon started asking New Jersey farmers to plant blackoil sunflowers, and paying them a premium rate for the seed they harvest. It is then processed and sold locally - a locavore diet for the birds.

Then the gains fund conservation: For every five acres planted in sunflowers, Audubon establishes and maintains one acre of grassland habitat, which is where the meadowlarks and bobolinks - both grassland species - get the help they need.

The first swath is 60 acres on a state wildlife management area near where Laine farms.

The Audubon project started out small but grew fast, now encompassing 250 acres on nine farms. Last year, they produced 60 tons of seed.

Customers apparently loved the seed so much that, for a while, they were willing to pay $10 more for a 50-pound bag, said Wes Grant, manager of the Burlington and Columbus Agway stores in Burlington County. "You get a lot more people these days that are interested in buying locally," he said. "And the quality was good."

But North Dakota prices have since risen, and now the two seeds cost within $1 of each, he said.

This is Shimp's first year in the program. Now 50, he has been farming since he was 12 and his father died. He's tried vegetables, potatoes, sod, and nursery stock. Now, he farms mostly wheat and soybeans.

But while those soybeans might bring $420 an acre, he said, a good crop of sunflower seed could bring $600.

If only the weather would cooperate. He should have planted in May, Shimp said. But it was too wet, and the seed didn't go in until June.

Then there was no rain.

And then, not long ago, the sky gushed 11 inches of rain over a matter of days. And then there was Irene, which flooded portions of the state.

The crop survived but it's been a terrible year.

The sunflower heads aren't as big as Shimp would like. The downpour trampled some of the plants, and heads that should be drying in the sun are rotting in the mud.

Still, Shimp is hopeful enough that he's mulling the $4,900 purchase of a sunflower harvester.

"There's opportunity there, if you get a good crop," he said.

This year, nearly 40 stores will carry the seeds, most beginning Oct. 1. (For a list of stores, visit www.njaudubon.org)

The program is an offshoot of the Jersey Fresh and Jersey Grown programs, both encouraging local markets for local products.

Ettel hopes farmers will connect with local retailers to explore still more options.

Last year, Laine went to a Flemington store that sells the sunflower seed, Basil Bandwagon. They talked, and it turned out that, in winter, the store sells organic tomatoes from Mexico.

It was a eureka moment. Laine had three empty greenhouses. He'd been trying to figure out what to do with them. This winter, he'll likely grow organic tomatoes in them.

Spokesmen for both the National Sunflower Association - based in North Dakota - and the National Bird-Feeding Society said they had not heard of similar programs elsewhere, but they'd like to.

"There is a general trend to thinking about the small farmer again," said David J. Horn, a biology professor at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and director of the society. He thinks programs like this could help.

One of the things he finds most exciting is that many of the nation's 55 million people who feed birds are interested in where the birdseed comes from - especially whether chemicals were used.

Shimp's sunflowers didn't require herbicides or pesticides. Just fertilizer.

With a crop grown by local farmers and bought by local consumers, "there is the opportunity for a greater level of environmental stewardship" and dialog, Horn said.

For Shimp, his year's sunflowers had another benefit.

Not that he's the sentimental sort - he's too harried by the trucking business that supplements his farming income - but compared with the bland crops he usually grows, the golden sunflowers were spectacular.

"You just want to stop and look at them," he said. "It mesmerizes you."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace

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