Our farm is part of nature. It's impossible to separate the soil, water, plants, air and animals that call our farm home from the ones that live in the natural spaces that surround us. Our woods, hedgerows, pond, and other parts of the farm are important pieces of this ecosystem puzzle, and they all interact in different ways to create the space we call home.
You may not know this about us, but both Ellen and Curt were scientists before they became farmers! Curt has a Master's degree from SUNY ESF, and was a fisheries biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service before he moved back home to work on the family farm. Ellen went to graduate school at Cornell University, earning her PhD in Natural Resources in 2019. In addition to farming, she is also currently a professor of natural resources management at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks. This blog post is for our fellow nature nerds out there - if you enjoy getting geeky about science, keep reading!
One of the classes that Ellen has taught at Paul Smith's College is called Ecosystem Services. This class teaches us about all the ways that a healthy, functioning ecosystem can benefit us as humans. An ecosystem encompasses all of the "things" in the environment - including the "biotic" or living things such as plants, animals, and bacteria, and "abiotic" or nonliving things such as water, air, and soil - and the ways that all of these things interact with each other.
When an ecosystem is healthy, it can benefit our human society in many ways. The four different categories of ecosystem services include:
Supporting Services: These are the processes that actually create the physical environment itself. For example; the water cycle, where water vapor in the air condenses into rainfall, runs down slopes as rivers, and collects in lakes and oceans creates all of the aquatic environments we have in the world. Life can't exist without water! Other examples of supporting services include the nitrogen cycle and photosynthesis, which provide nutrients and energy to the food web.
Regulating Services: These are the processes that make the world nice to live in, and make the following services (provisioning and cultural) possible. For example, bacteria and fungi decompose dead plant material into soil. If we didn't have this service, we would be buried deep under miles and miles of dead plant material! Other examples of regulating services include pollination of plants by insects and tree roots holding soil in place to prevent erosion.
Provisioning Services: These are the tangible physical things that we extract from the environment such as food and clean water. This is probably the service that you are most familiar with in your everyday life! For example, fruit from trees, fish from the ocean, fossil fuels to power our cars, and wood to build our homes are all provisioning services.
Cultural Services: These are the non-tangible benefits we receive from a healthy environment, such as the enjoyment of paddling on a clear mountain lake, a beautiful view, and the sound of birds singing. The environment also holds important traditional and religious significance to many cultures, such as various holidays heralding the change of seasons like Easter, Nowrouz (Persian New Year), and the yearly return of salmon to spawning streams in the Pacific Northwest.
How does the farm and its surrounding environment interact to provide us, the farmers and our community, with these ecosystem services? Ellen made a video for her class addressing just that! In this video, she gives a tour of the farm and discusses the various ecosystem services that different parts of the farm provide. Watch it below:
As both farmers and scientists, it is vitally important that we care for both our farm and the natural environment that surrounds it. The future of our farm, our community, and of our world overall depends on it! If we degrade our environment, we quickly begin to lose ecosystem services. For example, a polluted lake that grows a thick mat of algae has lost two services - it no longer provides clean water (provisioning service) or the enjoyment you get from paddling on a clear lake (cultural service.)
Different decisions that we make as farmers can affect our ecosystem, and therefore the services that it provides. For example, we could spray fungicides and herbicides on our crops to kill weeds and keep fungal diseases in check in a simple, one-step way. However, these herbicides and fungicides also kill off the good fungi that help decompose organic matter into healthy soil, and kill plants that feed butterflies and other insects that we need to pollinate our crops. A quick fix can do irreparable harm to our environment that sustains us. But these decisions aren't always black and white - they are complicated, just like the environment itself! Therefore, every decision we make on the farm considers not just the short-term benefits, but the future health of the ecosystem as well.
What services does the ecosystem you live in provide to you? How can you protect those services for future generations?