This Blog Post Is for the Birds

April 27, 2011

Last week, New Jersey Audubon talked about promoting locally grown and sustainably harvested wood under the “Jersey Grown” label as a creative solution to the difficult economic issues related to land and habitat conservation. Today we learn how birdseed (yes, birdseed!) is making a real difference for New Jersey farmers, and it’s helping NJ Audubon manage habitats for rare grassland birds.

Kirby Farm New Jersey sunflowers

Derwood Farm in Hillsborough, NJ managed by Mark Kirby.
Photo by Regina Geoghan

By Troy Ettel
Director of Conservation & Stewardship
New Jersey Audubon

In this space last week, I discussed how our work at New Jersey Audubon developing and implementing large-scale habitat management projects has brought home the importance of economic realities to the sustainability of conservation. The reality that the quality of life and opportunities for people that live in the regions that we are striving to protect are an incredibly important part of the equation first became apparent to us while working directly with New Jersey farmers.

New Jersey Audubon logoAnnually, over the past three years we have hosted what we have called “Farmer Forums.” Often, we have been joined by other conservation partners and a growing assortment of farmers interested in participating in NJ Audubon’s S.A.V.E.™ initiative. Making use of the USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grant program, we are connecting farmers, forest owners, and local operators to niche markets, launching our own brand, S.A.V.E., that stands for Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment. The goals of the project are to help revitalize local economies of the region while sustaining ecological restoration and preserving landscapes at the same time.

The Forums are not just an opportunity for NJ Audubon to vet new ideas; some of the best new ideas and problem solving continues to come from the farmers. Over time, the need for NJ Audubon to reiterate the ecological component of the project has faded; today the farmers often make the point for us. At a Forum in 2010, when a new farmer asked what would happen if a participant in the program was not interested in the conservation side of the project, another farmer was the one to jump in and emphatically state, “we would kick them out of the program.”

NJ Audubon Forum

Farmer Forums hosted in Jim Laine’s barn at his farm in 2009 in Hillsborough, NJ, which connected retailers interested in the birdseed with farmers.

Partially as a result of the economic downturn, many of the government subsides that have fueled natural resource stewardship for decades are receiving less funding or have been eliminated altogether. The conservation community faces a time of change and adaptation to this new paradigm that parallels our colleagues in the agricultural sector. Looking around the table at the Forums, change and adaptation are clearly becoming the new “normal” for farmers. Brant Gibbs formerly operated a prominent dairy farm in Warren County, Buddy Shimp from Salem County got started in the business as a potato farmer, and Raj Sinha is a first generation farmer from Sussex County who, among other ventures, is producing his own Jersey Grown salsa label. Today, all are growing birdseed with NJ Audubon.

Ultimately the Forum and discussions are all about connections – how farmers, conservation groups and retailers can collaborate to meet their varied individual objectives better than working apart. Thus far the results have been very positive. Jersey Grown Birdseed was the first product marketed under the S.A.V.E. initiative. Three farmers, Mark Kirby and Jim Laine of Hillsborough and Tom Zeng of Ringoes started growing black-oil sunflower in 2008 for the initiative. With a loyal customer base built over the past 20 years to purchase birdseed, NJ Audubon offered something that the farmers did not have – direct access to a niche market. This helped remove some of the project’s risk. In turn the farmers could give NJ Audubon something that it wanted: a local, Jersey Grown seed as an alternative to what was available in the marketplace – seed trucked from the Upper Midwest.

Freshly harvested, Jersey Grown birdseed. Look for it in garden centers and stores near you.

A business plan designed in collaboration with Rutgers MBA Consulting Program helped keep the birdseed project on target. Start-up funding from the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Innovation Program, allowed the farmers and NJ Audubon to further focus on a greener product, allowing establish of test plots experimenting with small bits of charcoal or bio-char, to look at opportunities to fix carbon in the soil within agricultural systems. At the same time, NJ Audubon uses revenue from the program to manage habitat for rare grassland birds and – equally important – used the expertise of the farmers to help manage the habitats. Sales have increased by 96% in its third year, 2011, exceeding 60 tons and being sold in nearly 30 locations statewide and now with 11 farmers involved. The success has allowed NJ Audubon to eclipse its modest initial goal of 40 acres managed for grassland birds and hopefully move in a direction that ensures future sustainability.

One of the highlights of the project has been the ability to increase traffic and attention to local farms participating in the project with NJ Audubon. This has included developing eco- and agritourism opportunities to further connect farmers and farms with the people living in New Jersey’s cities and suburbs. One of the orgininal farmers, Mark Kirby said, “One of the best things about working with NJ Audubon is that they have 22,000 members and now I am getting calls from people asking me what else I sell.” That sentiment has laid the perfect foundation for discussion in Forums. The project is ultimately about connections – connections for people to the land as food and as a natural part of their environment. The farmers are now bringing their ideas forward to talk about the next products for the label and some have had independent conversations with retailers carrying the seed about collaborating on other ways.

One of the greatest connections behind this project is the direct ability to connect consumers with the origin of their products. Any consumer who wants to know where their birdseed is grown or any of their other products comes from can join NJ Audubon for a trip to see the fields, meet the farmers, and see the habitat being created. You can check it out yourself. Just visit this summer to sign up for trips, find retail locations, and look for those new S.A.V.E. products – cold-pressed sunflower oil and native pine mulch – coming to market in 2011.

Special thanks to Troy Ettel and to our friends at New Jersey Audubon for this guest series.

Follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook to get the latest news as well as information about new S.A.V.E. products.