Organic produce grower Kurt Naumann joined the fight to protect honeybees this fall, when he dug up a 1.2-acre plot of field grass that hadn’t been touched in decades.
With financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), he planted a perennial seed mixture that will sprout next spring and flower for many years to come on his farm near Harris, Minn.
The goal is to improve local habitat for bees and other pollinators.
“We’ll see if this helps,’’ said Naumann, who has witnessed firsthand the decline of a commercial honeybee colony kept next to his property.
Naumann is one of hundreds of farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota who are participating in a well-received federal pilot project to improve the health of honeybees and address an alarming decline of pollinators in recent years.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an expansion of the initiative Wednesday with $4 million in new funding to help farmers and ranchers make plantings that provide bees forage and habitat. The initial allocation of $3 million wasn’t enough to satisfy all who applied, the agency said.
“The future of America’s food supply depends on honeybees, and this effort is one way USDA is helping improve the health of honeybee populations,” Vilsack said in a statement.
Minnesotans planted 591 acres under the program in its first year. Most fell into one of two categories: reseeding of nonproductive land such as Naumann’s so it provides forage for bees, or planting fallow cropland with clover and similar plants that are good for the insects, according to Debra Hermel, a district conservationist in North Branch for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Flowering ground cover is important to bees in agricultural areas that are dominated by fields of corn and soybeans.
“It’s all beans and corn out there, and bees don’t like that,’’ Naumann said.
In most cases, federal money covers the cost of the seeds. Naumann said the approved seed mixtures can range up to $1,000 an acre.
NRCS head Jason Weller said larger tracts of land come into play when the program assists ranchers who reseed pastures that have been overgrazed or otherwise beaten down to a condition that doesn’t support bees. In those circumstances, the agency helps ranchers develop new grazing management plans to keep the pastures healthy.
Weller said NRCS will work with other experts in and out of government to measure the benefit to bees, which will take a couple of years.
The Midwest is home to more than 65 percent of the nation’s commercially managed honeybees, according to the USDA, and honeybees pollinate about $15 billion worth of fruits, vegetables and other crops.
The program, which follows on a White House “pollinator summit” last summer, allows the USDA to work with farmers and ranchers to spread knowledge about factors associated with a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
The biggest user of the program in its first year was South Dakota, with 14,000 of the total 26,000 acres enrolled. Individual applications for new funding are due Nov. 21.