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Wisconsin orchard thrives in company of native pollinators

International Pollinator Week is June 20-26.

Deirdre Birmingham
Deirdre Birmingham, owner/operator of The Cider Farm in rural Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in the farm's tasting room.
Contributed by Deirdre Birmingham
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Agweek Podcast: Enhancing pollinator habitat
Fri Jun 24 11:11:34 EDT 2022
Agweek reporter Noah Fish is joined by Deirdre Birmingham, owner and operator of the Cider Farm in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Birmingham talks about how she's  enhanced the pollintaor habitat on her certified organic orchard by  planting a 30-acre prairie, putting prairie strips around the orchard, adding milkweed seeds for monarchs, alternating the mowing in alleyways so every other row is flowering, enhancing beneficial insect populations, using certified organic products and leaving dandelions alone. 

MINERAL POINT, Wis. ― Deirdre Birmingham, owner and operator of the Cider Farm, said she grows the "unusual varieties" at her certified organic orchard.

"I think we're one of the only orchards in the U.S. that started for the purposes of making booze," she said of the Wisconsin orchard. "We grow true cider varieties, especially ones that have tannins, because we ferment all of our apple juice to hard cider, as well as apple brandy."

On their orchard she said they have about 16,000 trees and counting, spread across about 18 acres. The entire farm is around 166 acres, she said.

Birmingham said that being certified organic doesn't mean they don't use spray on the property.

"I do spray, but I'm spraying materials that are approved by the National Organic Program," she said.

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She's recently enhanced the pollinator habitat on her certified organic orchard by planting a 30-acre prairie, putting prairie strips around the orchard, adding milkweed seeds for monarchs, alternating the mowing in alleyways so every other row is flowering, enhancing beneficial insect populations, using certified organic products and leaving dandelions alone.

Cider Farm
The Cider Farm in Mineral Point, Wisc., owned and operated by Deirdre Birmingham.
Contributed / Deirdre Birmingham

"We want to create a diverse habitat from April through October," said Birmingham. "So if you want pollinators as well as have some other beneficial insects that keep some of our insect pests at bay, you need to have habitat throughout the season."

On the prairie strips she has around the orchard are native grasses and forbs, and Birmingham said they converted the 30-acres of rented cropland to "very high quality prairie."

"We burn that every few years to help enhance its vegetation in there," said Birmingham. "And in some of the windbreaks that we put around the orchard we put in to reduce some of the wind damage, and we put in species that can have benefits for pollinators as well."

This year, Birmingham said they felt rewarded for their multifaceted approach to enhancing pollinator habitat. Across the street from the orchard is a beekeeper, and she said his bees enjoy a diverse habitat including what's on her orchard.

"I realized this year that I hadn't been noticing the honey bees on the dandelions, creeping charlie, or some of the early things that are out there," she said. "And then I learned from him that his bees were delayed in Texas, and so they wouldn't be arriving in time to pollinate my early varieties."

She said that was concerning to her at first, especially with so many things blossoming on her land.

"So I was thinking, wow, well then it's going to be up to the wild pollinators this year," she said. "They had lots of choices besides just my apple trees, but I think because we have that habitat in place for them, they must not have felt the need to go too far, because they did pollinate my crop. And we've got some nice fruit set out there."

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Birmingham said that her biggest tips she has for operators looking to enhance pollinator habitat is to have things flowering from April through through October, and to embrace plants they may have been turned off to in the past.

"On my orchard, I love the dandelions and the creeping charlie, which homeowners with lawns just can't stand," she said. "But if you can tolerate a little bit of that, that's some of the earliest stuff out there, that really is helpful to our natives to have some plant species that that they can go to."

She said the colors of the two plants combined — yellow and purple, make for a pleasing sight to look at, as well.

"Sometimes you even just need to change your mindset a little, on your views on things," shes said. "And not look at something so negatively, but also see some positive aspects to it."

Related Topics: CROPSAGRICULTURESOIL HEALTH
Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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