Sustainable by Design

THE CHILDREN’S SONG URGES HER TO FLY AWAY HOME, but the ladybug—or ladybeetle, as she’s properly called—is anything but a homebody. After feasting all summer on soybean aphids and other crop pests, the beetles take off from farm fields in search of snug overwintering spots, often winding up in people’s houses. Around Madison, this usually means a journey of five miles or more, says CALS entomology professor Claudio Gratton. But the insects can also fly much farther. In the Southwest, for example, they congregate on mountaintops. “You’ll come upon a bush just dripping with ladybeetles, and you know they probably had to travel 30 miles to get there,” says Tim Meehan, a research scientist working with Gratton who earned his doctorate in
New Mexico.

Those wandering ways got Gratton and Meehan wondering a few years back if the beetles’ lives were touched not just by the soybean fields where they fed, but by the wider world as well. They soon discovered that, indeed, “What the landscape looks like actually makes a big difference,” says Gratton. In experiments across the Midwest, ladybeetles devoured more aphids in fields nestled within a patchwork of woods and grassy pastures than in those surrounded by soybeans and corn as far as a bug’s eye could see.

Although the two still aren’t sure why this is, it led them to ponder another possibility that has big implications for the sustainability of our farmlands. If the chance variation that exists in some farming areas already gives ladybeetles a boost, what if farmlands were purposely designed for diversity? Would the insects dispatch even more aphids? Might they even become tiny tools of sustainability, allowing farmers to spray fewer chemicals?

It takes a lot of imagination to picture such a landscape today, with two-thirds of the Midwest’s cropland blanketed in corn and soybeans. But there is a force that could re-stitch the Corn Belt into a crazy quilt—the push toward ethanol and other types of bioenergy. True, the ethanol blended into gasoline today still comes exclusively from corn kernels. And few “dedicated” bioenergy crops, such as grasses, have been sown so far for making cellulosic ethanol from stalks and stems, or burning in power plants instead of coal.

But bioenergy crops will almost certainly grow widely one day. The goal of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is to replace 30 percent of gasoline and other U.S. transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030. And that, CALS scientists say, offers a chance to reshape our farmlands in an unprecedented way, so they yield not only food and fuel, but also things like ladybeetles and the benefits they provide.

In scientific parlance those benefits are called “ecosystem services”—natural processes we rely on but don’t usually pay for, Meehan says. Pest control by ladybeetles is one service; pollination by native bees, water cleansing, soil formation and even aesthetic beauty are others. Today’s simplified agricultural landscapes excel at producing corn, cotton and other vital commodities in massive amounts, but these may come at the price of water quality, erosion, loss of bird and insect habitat and increased pesticide use, as another study by Meehan and Gratton recently found. The question now is whether switchgrass, willow and other biofuel crops could cut those costs by sowing some plant diversity back into the system.

“The focus now is land use, not just food or fuel or a new crop. How do we use land sustainably?” says Chris Kucharik, a CALS professor of agronomy and environmental studies. “It just so happens that fuel has ignited the debate over sustainable land use right now.”

At the same time, strong forces are working to maintain the status quo. Skyrocketing commodity prices and rising demand for ethanol have led many farmers to put as much land in corn as possible. This year, 92.3 million acres were planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, four million above last year’s total and the second highest amount since World War II.

“Discovering the World and Myself”

Chris Stillion did lots of different things during his time with the Peace Corps in the West African nation of Niger. He worked with women to establish a group savings fund, which often was the only way poor rural residents could save money. He helped restore a 100-meter-deep drinking water well. He organized a women’s cooperative garden, where women learned irrigation techniques and grew onions, mangos, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers and leafy greens for home consumption and sale.

But the thing that drew him most was the land itself. While coordinating a large-scale intervention to restore soils in a heavily eroded agricultural valley, Stillion drew connections between soil quality and human survival.

“I realized how important caring for and understanding soil is to the long-term productivity of the land,” says Stillion. “I was working with farmers who were absolutely dependent on what they could grow on limited and nutrient-poor land.”

Stillion returned to the United States in 2007 determined to contribute to that field. He’s now a graduate student in the CALS cross-disciplinary agroecology program, where he continues to collaborate with local landowners, this time in the Kickapoo Valley. Under the guidance of soil science professor Stephen Ventura, Stillion is working with residents who were involved in the recent drafting of state-mandated land use plans to develop compatible scenarios.

Information Stillion is gathering includes documenting land use priorities of local residents as well as Kickapoo towns and counties; using GIS mapping to assess the future of managed rotational grazing and how a woody biomass energy program might best benefit the area’s economy; and working with residents and groups to calibrate the land use model being created at the university for use in local decisionmaking.

Approaching Kickapoo landowners is not so different from what he’d experienced in Africa, Stillion notes.

“I’d say that they’re skeptical at first but eventually they become very receptive and supportive,” he says. “I think they finish by understanding that I’m not going to tell them what they should be doing, that I really do want to learn something from them, and as a result produce something of potential use to them.”

Looking back on his Peace Corps experience with a few years’ distance, Stillion has no doubt that it had a profound effect on his life.

“Helping other people and learning in partnership with them is fairly addictive, and that’s what we were really doing in Peace Corps—getting to know people and their needs and working with them to meet those needs,” Stillion says.

He recommends Peace Corps to anyone considering it.

“It’s an excellent way to discover the world and yourself—the complexity and diversity that’s out there, outside of America,” he says.