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Healthy Farm Index will help farmers see the big picture


While profits and yields often are the bottom line for farmers, a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln tool called the Healthy Farm Index will help farmers take into account the benefits of nature.

An integral part of UNL's organic farming project, the tool will help farmers and landowners measure their farm's ecological health and maintain or improve crop productivity.

"It will help farmers find a balance between maintaining profits and yields while enhancing the farm ecosystem," said John Quinn, a third-year doctoral student at UNL leading the project's research. "We really want this to be a tool for farmers interested in looking at a broader spectrum of their farm based on the best science available."

The Healthy Farm Index will measure and optimize multiple ecosystem services, communicate their value and ensure that ecosystem services remain in the decision-making process of farmers, agency personnel and other stakeholders.

Ecosystem services include all the benefits people receive from nature. This includes everything produced on the farm like clean water, air and soil.

"These are things that we want farmers to think about and talk about," Quinn said. "While farmers may be talking now about high yields, we want them to be talking about protecting their watershed and bird species on their farms. If we can get those things as part of their conversations, we can get them as part of the decision making process."

UNL researchers have designed the tool so any individual can use it. By the end of this year they will have a Web-based user interface so that anyone can go online and plug in his or her information.

While researchers have started with 27 organic farms across Nebraska and Kansas for this project, Quinn hopes all farmers some day will use the tool. The team started with organic farmers because they have more diverse systems and have more crops on a smaller scale.

The project has received four more years of USDA funding. Quinn, a native of Minneapolis, Minn., will continue this research post-doctoral. Other members of the UNL research team working on the Healthy Farm Index are James Brandle, professor in UNL's School of Natural Resources, and Ron Johnson, formerly of UNL, now with the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Clemson University. The principle investigator for the UNL organic farming project is Charles Shapiro, UNL soils scientist.

The project started when Quinn set out to study birds and food production on farm systems.

"The more people we talked to, the more we realized that we needed to look at something broader," Quinn said.

The Healthy Farm Index covers ecological, social and economic factors of farm systems.

Current indicators for the Healthy Farm Index include: production: yield, diversification and acres; biodiversity: habitat, birds, crops and livestock; ecosystem services/conservation practices: soil, water and landscape; personal satisfaction with: profit and farm management.

The structure of the index is designed so that other indicators can be added as more research is conducted and more people participate.

So far, researchers have sampled breeding bird populations and associated insect and vegetation communities on the 27 organic farms. They are finishing up their third year of data of early morning bird surveys. Surveys start at sunrise and finish four hours later. In addition, farmer surveys are being conducted with participating farms for their crop production and management practices, including their satisfaction with their farm operation.

When it comes to birds, some have responded differently to different vegetation practices, such as windbreaks versus larger wooded areas.

Researchers also are looking at balancing bird diversity with production using a frontier curve. This will allow farmers to make small adjustments to their management strategy, such as reducing yield by 2 percent, but dramatically increasing bird diversity.

"Basically, all these components come together to give us an index value," Quinn said. "The whole purpose is to have a decision making tool for farmers."

For more information about the Healthy Farms Index, visit the Web at http://hfi.unl.edu/.

The UNL organic project began in October 2005. All four University of Nebraska-Lincoln organic farms now are certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association International. The four research farms are located at the Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead, the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory near Concord, the South Central Agricultural Laboratory near Clay Center and the High Plains Agricultural Laboratory near Sidney.

The principle investigator for the UNL organic farming project is Charles Shapiro, UNL soils scientist. For information about organic research at UNL visit the Organic Working Group website at http://organic.unl.edu or contact Liz Sarno at esarno2@unl.edu or 402-309-0944.

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