A Crop Dividend: Restored Bird Habitat in New Jersey



Raj Sinha’s sunflower farm in Augusta, N.J. The seeds are bagged and sold to finance grasslands restoration on a site 40 miles to the south.

September 10, 2012: The crop is sunflowers, and sales of sunflower seeds, bagged and sold as birdseed by the New Jersey Audubon Society, have financed the conversion of a 70-acre tract of state-owned land into a grassland habitat. Since the program began five years ago, flocks of 50 or more bobolinks, a threatened species in the state, have been counted at the site. Other threatened species, including the American kestrel and grasshopper sparrow, have also been sighted.

And for the seven New Jersey farmers taking part in the program, growing acres of sunflowers for the Audubon society offers the promise of a ready buyer for the crop before it is even planted and an opportunity for agritourism.

In Augusta, near the state’s northwest corner, Raj Sinha has carved a maze into his 50 acres of bobbing shoulder-high dinner-plate-size flowers. He charges $8 for adults, $5 for children, and his parking area has been full on weekends since opening in mid-August.

As he led the way along a path, the field opened up into a vast blanket of blooms spreading into the distance to form yellow dots near the horizon. A farmer more accustomed to planting garlic scapes and corn, Mr. Sinha said he has been been surprised by the sunflowers’ allure.

“People have come from Delaware, Long Island, Connecticut,” he said. “They pay me, enjoy walking through the field, and then want to buy more.” Mr. Sinha has also opened a small farm stand at the entrance where he sells vegetables, fresh-cut sunflower blooms and his own brand of salsa, Jersey Devil.

In areas of the state where fields of corn or grazing dairy cows are more common, the other participating farmers have also quickly discovered the magnetism of acres of sunflowers, said John P. Parke, a stewardship project director with the state branch of the Audubon Society. “When the guys started growing these things, they noticed people pulling over to look, take pictures, and we’ve had artists stop by too,” Mr. Parke said.

At the end of the season, the seeds are collected and marketed in bags with the brand SAVE (for Support Agriculture Viability and the Environment), and sold in 30 stores across the state. The bags cost more than other brands of black oil sunflower seeds, “but people are willing to pay it, because it is the freshest sunflower seeds you can buy, grown right here by New Jersey farmers, and the money is going to a good cause,” Mr. Parke said.

Last year’s supply of SAVE black-oil sunflower seeds have sold out.

About 40 miles south as the crow flies from Mr. Sinha’s field, the New Jersey Audubon Society is using the profits from the sunflower seed to provide a nesting habitat for grassland birds. The project is part of the South Branch Wildlife Management Area, a state-owned property in Hillsborough and Readington townships that once belonged to Merck, the pharmaceutical giant.

Grasslands are vanishing in New Jersey, and so are the species that thrive in this habitat.

“New Jersey is so developed that often the only undeveloped open space is abandoned property that becomes choked with every nonnative invasive species” of plant life,” Mr. Plante said, noting that invasive species are crowding out native ones in other regions of the country as well. Nearly half of the birds listed as endangered in New Jersey are grassland species, which use warm-season grasses (like big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass) for nesting.

By creating and managing fields of native grasses and keeping in check pushy exotic plants like wineberry and Russian olive that can overrun and make an area almost impenetrable to wildlife, the society has seen a resurgence of grassland-loving birds, including the eastern meadowlark. “It’s been a steady comeback,” Mr. Parke said.

The SAVE program, which won a New Jersey Governor’s Environmental Excellence award last year, has another benefit. The fields of sunflowers are buzzing with bees and other pollinators, another segment of the animal kingdom threatened by overdevelopment. “Those pollinators will go on and help crops in surrounding fields,” Mr. Parke said.

There’s also the carbon-footprint advantage to selling locally produced birdseed rather than having it trucked here; the vast bulk of sunflower seeds produced in the United States are grown in Western states, most in the Dakotas.

At Mr. Sinha’s sunflower maze, the harvest is a few weeks away. He believes his is the largest sunflower maze on the East Coast, or for that matter, the world, and he has applied to the Guinness World Records organization about making it official.

As a marketing line, “it’s too late for this year, but maybe for next year,” he said with a grin.

Emboldened by the sunflower initiative’s success, the Audubon Society is broadening the SAVE line into wood products. It is using Atlantic white cedar harvested from New Jersey’s Pinelands to create a natural accompaniment to the locally grown sunflower seeds: bird feeders sold with the label “Made With Jersey Grown Wood.”


Courtesy: The New York Times

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