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Late spring takes wing as birds return

The grass was heavy with dew and a foggy mist shrouded the creek bottoms as I arose early to begin the task of removing unused fence. I removed wire clips, rolled up barbed wire and pulled up the steel fence posts. My boots and pants were soon fully soaked.

As I worked my way through the dense marsh grasses the early-morning silence was interrupted by a harsh sound.



A male red-winged blackbird — actually several of them — did not like my presence and were quite vocal with their protests. Along with their screeches, they flew about my head, showing no fear of an unwanted creature in their territory.

Unmistakable with their red-orange shoulder patches trimmed in yellow, the males are easily identifiable. But the females are a nondescript brown and tan — perfectly suited for their role of building nests, laying eggs and rearing chicks. Their color is camouflage for protection against predators.

The noisy males arrive before the females to stake out their territory. And they fiercely defend it. A few years ago, the birds decided to build a nest in the middle of our raspberry patch and would dive-bomb any intruder. My wife, Sherry, took to arming herself with a tennis racquet. An uneasy truce was formed. No injuries were reported.

I discovered one of this past year’s nests in the grass. Females build the nest in just a few days with grass and mud. They usually lay three to four eggs, which are hatched in 11 to 12 days. The chicks go from blind and naked to leaving the nest two weeks after hatching. A female raises two or three clutches in a season, building a new nest each time.

There are an estimated 150 million of these birds in the United States. There’s a reason why there are so many; they are hell-bent on reproduction. Unlike the gentle mourning dove that mates for life, red-winged blackbirds are polygynous. They are nature’s swingers. Males defend as many as 15 females in their territory. But the females copulate with other males, resulting in clutches of mixed paternity. No blood tests are needed.

The birds are migratory and often fly in great numbers. A 2018 article in Madison Audubon quoted from the book “Wisconsin Birdlife” by Samuel D. Robbins, who recounted a recording from W.E. Snyder of Beaver Dam.

“On November 9, 1924, there occurred here, about 4 p.m., a flight of blackbirds, the like of which no local resident ever saw before. The procession, passing from due north to due south, was of such length that those in the lead as well as those in the rear, faded out into mere specks … the flight lasted for a full half-hour. The flight was at a great height, a solid column, unbroken by any bunched formation.”

Also among our avian farm friends are the ruby-throated hummingbirds, who have returned from their Mexican winter vacation. The males also are the first to return, staking out territory. We see plenty of the birds drinking nectar from blossoms; we also enjoy watching them at a feeding station on our porch.

A few years ago we had a delightful couple stay at our inn for a few days. They watched the hummingbirds with great joy and fascination. It was special to them, they said, because they had never seen a hummingbird before but said they were mentioned in the Quran.

“Do they not see the birds suspended in mid-air up in the sky? Nothing holds them there except Allah. There are certainly Signs in that for people who have belief.” – Surat an-Nahl, 79

The Bible doesn’t mention hummingbirds but they’re sometimes associated with the resurrection, sleeping still overnight like death before resuming boundless energy at dawn — messengers from heaven. Native Americans believe the birds are symbols of luck, devotion, permanence and the cycle of life.

The signs of spring are in full swing. Soon it will be summer.

The cycle of life turns.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at chardie1963@gmail.com.

No one ever loves the umpire

While the coronavirus pandemic was hammering global trade earlier this year, the various U.S. bureaucracies devoted to trade barely skipped a beat before returning to their usual grind.

For example, the U.S. and the United Kingdom just began talks on a bilateral trade pact prior to the U.K.’s Oct. 31 “Brexit” from the European Union. Also, on July 1, NAFTA 2.0, the new-but-not-new North American Free Trade Agreement, will go into effect as scheduled.

What has changed drastically, however, is trade itself. In short, it’s a beaten-up mess, even more sickly than the economies of key traders like the U.S., China, and the European Union.

“In the current alternate universe we’re living in,” Bloomberg News noted June 15, “global trade is collapsing and the WTO [World Trade Organization] and the liberal order itself are in a true existential crisis.”

“Liberal order” is a little-used phrase in U.S. ag circles even though almost every American farmer and rancher — due to their increasing dependence on government and global markets — would be sunk without it.

In fact, it isn’t a political term; it’s perfectly descriptive: The liberal order is a rules-based, international system organized by the U.S. and its democratic allies on key principles like open markets, democracy, and multilateral institutions such as the WTO and World Bank. Its broader goal is peace and its key tool is commerce.

American farmers and ranchers have long used a colorful phrase to explain it more accurately: Hungry people don’t shoot their grocers. They’re right. Since the liberal order’s rise, the United States has built three generations of peaceful farm policy on its core foundations: open markets, free trade, and international rules.

The proof is in the post-war pudding. U.S. farmers and ranchers have dominated global ag export markets for decades, from decidedly anti-democratic Cold War enemies like the Soviet Union in the 1970s to the vast, reawakening giant, China, in the 2000s.

But for all its strengths, the liberal order is still a delicate balancing act. If you want its benefits — open markets, free trade, and peace — you must constantly reinvest to maintain its foundations — rules, trust in its institutions, and strong, unwavering American leadership.

Alas, the Trump Administration has turned America’s traditional leadership role in international trade on its head. Within hours of taking office in 2017 it pulled the U.S. out of the nearly completed Trans-Pacific Pact, a 12-nation trade deal that involves about 40 percent of global trade. A year later, it began a largely phony tariff war with Canada, China, the European Union, and other key food importers that remains unresolved today.

But the biggest victim in the White House’s ongoing undermining of international ag trade is the World Trade Organization. The WTO is like baseball’s home plate umpire — few players or fans for either side love the ump, but there wouldn’t be a game without someone ensuring fairness.

Long before the pandemic began to erode global markets, the Trump White House began to erode the WTO’s role in market rule enforcement. Its most cutting action occurred last year when it blocked the nomination of new judges to the WTO’s “dispute resolution forum, the Appellate Body.” That effectively meant the WTO “was no longer able to operate.”

Other key global traders, sensing an opportunity to seize part of America’s global authority, stepped in to do just that. “In January, 17 WTO members, including the European Union, China, and Brazil, began setting up a parallel WTO court without the U.S,” reported Politico June 14.

So where’s that leave American farmers and ranchers?

Here’s where: The pandemic has crushed 25 percent of the world economy; U.S. farm prices are stuck in a tariff-dug, years-long profitless rut leaving producers heavily dependent on federal assistance in 2020 and 2021; and our ag export competitors and customers are now forming their own ruling trade organization without us.

In short, we’re the pouty schoolboy who grabs the bat and ball and stomps off the field because we don’t like the rules. Rules we, in fact, wrote.

Worse, we know how that game ends.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

© 2020 ag comm

Conservation protects pollinator habitat, boosts crop production

The next time you snack on almonds, add blueberries to your smoothie or eat pumpkin pie, thank a pollinator and thank farmers, ranchers and private forestland owners who work hard to create and maintain their habitat.

Pollinators, such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, birds, bats, flies and many others, play a critical role in crop production. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have many crops.

During the week of June 22-28, the nation will celebrate these iconic and crucial pollinators during National Pollinator Week. This year’s theme is “Pollinators, Plants, People and Planet.” Thirteen years ago, the U.S. Senate unanimously designated the third week in June as National Pollinator Week to increase awareness about the importance of pollinators and the challenges many of them face, including serious population declines and habitat losses, often due to land use changes and excessive or improper pesticide use. Nearly 200 species of pollinators are considered threatened or extinct.

Pollination occurs when pollen grains are moved between two flowers of the same species, or within a single flower by wind or insects and animals. Successful pollination results in healthy fruit and fertile seeds, allowing the plants to reproduce.

The extensive and critical world of crop pollinators is a $20 billion a year industry. About 75% of crop plants are pollinated by billions of animals and insects every year.

Many federal, state and local government agencies, non-government organizations and universities have launched extensive efforts to protect pollinators, especially honeybees and the monarch butterfly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture works closely with farmers, forest landowners and other private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in targeted areas nationwide.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, offers financial incentives to agricultural producers and private forest landowners who enhance pollinator habitat by voluntarily implementing conservation practices such as cover crops, wildflower and native plantings in buffers and areas not in production.

Conservation Reserve Program also can be used to enhance habitat to protect pollinators. Administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency, CRP is a land conservation program in which enrolled landowners remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

As owners and stewards of the land, many farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners manage their natural resources to work to achieve their production goals, they are protecting the rich and diverse ecology on or near their operations.

When we protect pollinators, we protect our ability to grow food. We thank our farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners for who offer a safe haven for pollinators and grow the products we enjoy.

Whether you are a large commodity producer, a small and diverse organic producer or even a suburban homeowner, you can have an important role in saving pollinators in Wisconsin.

You can help protect pollinators by doing the following:

• Plant appropriate vegetation. Use conservation practices and create habitat that sustains and enhance pollinators on the farm, forest or the yard.

• Use pesticides, herbicides and insecticides carefully on and off the farm, ranch and private forests. Keep your operation pollinator friendly.

• Protect flowering plants and potential pollinator nesting sites such as areas of undisturbed ground and native vegetation.

Do your part to help protect pollinators. By taking action to diversify and beautify your operation or property, you could ensure that many fruits and vegetables are available and plentiful for future generations for many years to come.

For more information about pollinators and what you can do in Wisconsin, please contact your local USDA service center.

Biggs is USDA NRCS state conservationist, and Chalmers is USDA FSA state executive director.