A New Kind of Harvest -URI project helps farmers provide habitat for wild birds

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 21, 2009 — Alongside the booths offering fruits and vegetables, a new and unusual farm “product” is for sale this summer at local farmers’ markets – the chance to protect tiny bobolink songbirds that nest in local hayfields.

The Bobolink Project is an innovative solution to an increasingly critical problem, said University of Rhode Island environmental economics professor Stephen Swallow. With their native grasslands largely lost to development, bobolinks now nest mostly in hayfields. But today’s hay harvest begins earlier in the summer than it used to, and bobolink nests are often destroyed before chicks can hatch and fly away.

Once one of Rhode Island’s most common birds, the bobolink population has plummeted more than 40 percent over the past 25 years. It is listed as a “species of concern” by Partners in Flight, an international coalition devoted to the conservation of migratory birds.

“Farms, especially independent farms, need to use their resources efficiently to remain sustainable. We understand that,” Swallow said. “The Bobolink Projects compensates farmers for the costs associated with holding off on cutting their hay until nesting season is over.”

“Essentially, we’re asking people to pay rent to the farmers so bobolinks can use their fields. That way, the farmers can incorporate helping birds into their business plan,” Swallow said. “It’s a new kind of harvest: providing habitat protection.”

The Bobolink Project, sponsored by URI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is setting up booths at farmers’ markets across the state to raise support for its innovative approach to wildlife protection.

Under the program, consumers contribute to a “field fund.” If enough Rhode Islanders participate by the October 15 deadline, the Bobolink Project will negotiate farmland-wildlife contracts with local farmers for next summer. Farmers who contract with the Bobolink Project will refrain from mowing or cattle grazing during the 2010 nesting season, and in turn will be paid to cover the cost of buying additional cattle feed and for the income lost by postponing their hay harvest. The farmland-wildlife contracts last one year, and can be renewed annually.

The Bobolink Project got its start in 2007 in Jamestown. This year the project has expanded to farms throughout Rhode Island and Vermont.

The Bobolink Project is part of a URI experiment to create a new national model of wildlife conservation — market-based ecosystem services. The concept seeks to establish farmers’ protection of habitat as a service they can sell to consumers. It hopes to expand to a national model for market-driven protection of ecosystem services.

“Consumers pay for what they value. If consumers value wildlife, it only makes sense that they would pay to protect it,” Swallow said. “By contributing to the Bobolink Project, Rhode Islanders are not only protecting the bobolink and other grassland birds. They also are supporting local farms and helping preserve the open, rural spaces that are part of what gives our state its unique character.”

For more information about the Bobolink Project, visit www.ProtectBobolinks.org.