Roots to Renewal

Season Two, Episode Four: Conrad Vispo and Claudia Knab Vispo on the work of Hawthorne Valley's Farmscape Ecology Program

January 13, 2023 Hawthorne Valley / Conrad Vispo and Claudia Knab Vispo Season 2 Episode 4
Roots to Renewal
Season Two, Episode Four: Conrad Vispo and Claudia Knab Vispo on the work of Hawthorne Valley's Farmscape Ecology Program
Show Notes Transcript

Thank you for joining us for Episode 4 of Season 2, highlighting the work of Hawthorne Valley’s Farmscape Ecology Program. Their mission is to foster informed, active compassion for the ecological and cultural landscape of Columbia County, New York through participatory research and outreach. 

In this episode Hawthorne Valley’s Executive Director, Martin Ping, sits down with two of the founders of the Farmscape Ecology Program – wildlife ecologist, Conrad Vispo and field botanist, Claudia Knab-Vispo. The two also happen to be partners in life. Claudia holds a PhD in Land Resources, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After working on plant-animal interactions in Borneo and on ethnobotany in Venezuela, she has spent more than two decades documenting and teaching about plants in and around Columbia County. Conrad, who grew up in Columbia County, holds a PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin. Before returning to Columbia County, Conrad conducted ecological research on a variety of organisms, including mammals, birds and fish in a variety of places, including the woods of northern Wisconsin and tropical Venezuela. Conrad’s recent focus is on agroecology. His passion is understanding historical and modern patterns of animal (including human) ecology on the land.

The conversation is timely as the Farmscape Ecology Program team, together with Gretchen Stevens of Hudsonia, are about to release their new book (likely mid-year) entitled, “From the Hudson to the Taconics: An Ecological and Cultural Field Guide to the Habitats of Columbia County, New York.” The book is an invitation for people to explore the patterns in the landscape and make themselves more familiar with the other-than-human life that shares the land with us.

Learn more at Farmscape's website:
Wonder Wanders
Progress of the Seasons Phenology Project
Make a donation

Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley’s Roots to Renewal podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at

Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our work a reality. Please consider making a donation to support us today. If you’d like to help us in other ways, please help us spread the word about this podcast by sharing it with your friends, and leaving us a rating and review.

If you'd like to follow the goings-on at the farm and our initiatives, follow us on Instagram!

Heather (00:14):

Hello, welcome to Hawthorne Valley's podcast, Roots to Renewal. Thank you for joining us for Episode Four of Season Two, highlighting the work of Hawthorne Valley's Farmscape Ecology Program. Their mission is to foster informed, active compassion for the ecological and cultural landscape of Columbia County, New York through participatory research and outreach. In this episode, Hawthorne Valley's Executive Director, Martin Ping, sits down with two of the founders of the Farmscape Ecology Program: Wildlife Ecologist Conrad Vispo and Field Botanist Claudia Knab-Vispo. The two also happen to be partners in life. Claudia holds a PhD in Land Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After working on plant animal interactions in Borneo and on Ethnobotany in Venezuela, she has spent more than two decades documenting and teaching about plants in and around Columbia County. Conrad, who grew up in Columbia County, holds a PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin. Before returning to Columbia County, Conrad conducted ecological research on a variety of organisms, including mammals, birds, and fish in a variety of places, including the woods of Northern Wisconsin and tropical Venezuela. Conrad's recent focus is on agroecology. His passion is understanding historical and modern patterns of animals, including human ecology on the land. The conversation is timely as the Farmscape Ecology Program team together with Gretchen Stevens of Hudsonia are about to release their new book, likely midyear, entitled "From the Hudson to the Taconics, an Ecological and Cultural Field Guide to the Habitats of Columbia County, New York." The book is an invitation for people to explore the patterns in the landscape and make themselves more familiar with the other than human life that shares the land with us. We are grateful to Tierra Farm, a family-owned manufacturer and distributor of organic dried fruits and nuts, that puts the people they serve and the planet we share before all else for their continued generous support of this podcast. Learn more at

Martin (02:35):

Good morning, Conrad and Claudia. It is so nice of you to make time on this, uh, day before a big holiday, with family obligations and other things going on, to have this conversation this morning. I very much appreciate it and I'm very much looking forward to it. And of course, our conversation will center around your work with the Farmscape Ecology Program here at Hawthorne Valley. And although I'm somewhat chronologically impaired, I think I'm correct in saying that you're approaching your 20th anniversary mark of this work. Is that correct?

Conrad (03:12):

Yeah, it was a soft start, so it's a little bit hard to say exactly when <laugh>, but somewhere in there.

Martin (03:18):

Yeah. A soft and, uh, a memorable start, and maybe that's a good place for us to start is to just go back a little bit and just, maybe, remind us a little bit about the origin story of, of Farmscape.

Conrad (03:34):

Yeah. So I, I grew, I wasn't born in Columbia County, but I grew up in Columbia County. Um... moved here when I was entering third grade and then went away, took undergrad and grad school and that sort of thing. And then, when Claudia and I decided to move back, my parents were still living here, and so wanted to be closer to them. And Otter was born, then just happened to see an ad in the newspaper for a job at the Farm Store. And I, I don't really like big cities, so the idea of like working in Albany or even in Pittsfield was just not something I wanted to do. And so I thought, oh, well, I'll try this. Like I really had had very little connection with Hawthorne Valley before because I grew up in Canaan, so, you know, 20 minutes away or so, and worked at the Farm Store for a couple years while it was still in the old attached to the barn. And then as Otter literally got on his feet and we kind of settled into being next door to my parents and that sort of thing, decided that, yeah, we really wanted to go back. Both Claudia and I have trained in ecology, and we didn't leave that because we didn't like it or didn't enjoy it or didn't want to do it. It was it was because, at that point in life, that was just where we were at. And so then as we started to say, "okay, you know, I think we're gonna move on," I think it was through conversations with you, with Steffen, Rachel came up with this idea, well, what, what could we envision doing that would keep us at Hawthorne Valley? And it was out of those conversations that the Farmscape Ecology Program arose. And agroecology was not an area, tell me if I'm wrong, but I, Claudia I think it was not a, an area that we had really anticipated working in. Uh, and so it was almost a surprise, but yet at the same time, there were various strands in what we had been doing before. So, I spent time before we came back to, to Columbia County, we had been working in Venezuela working. I was working with indigenous fisheries, um, down there, and Claudia was working more with ethnobotany. And so we had, and our training too had sort of led up to this, we had been working with people and conservation people in biodiversity--never in an agricultural context but in slightly different context. But then when we started to think about, "oh yeah, what can we do? How can we bring our interests and experiences to agriculture?" It was kind of like, yeah, it's just another way of people and nature and another way of entering into that world. So I think that was a natural fit. And I think the one other thing that I would add, and then I'll be quiet, um, is that I've always been fascinated, and this was due to professors who, who opened up this view to me, with how in some ways mutable our landscape is. And so that you look at a forest and you realize, "Oh, this used to be an agricultural field. Or this used to be this was at some point a clear cut or something like that." And so you start thinking, "Gee, everything changes." And that makes you think about where things might go in the future, but it also makes you see a current landscape with its heritage and think, oh, you know, just like people we're not completely separated from our heritages. And so where can you look, how can you look at a farm field and say, "Oh yeah, this is currently a farm field, but how are some of the wild organisms in this landscape using this farm field still using it and why are they using it? And how might you accentuate that?" So I think that's those, that's my version of an origin. Then Claudia will probably tell you the true story.

Claudia (07:44):

<laugh>. Yeah. If I may add to that. It's not the true story, it's just another, um, another angle on it. Um, so we both had worked in the tropics for a while before we came here. And I guess that was sort of like our young days when we were, um, excitable and adventurous and it's, it was, it felt like a real privilege to be able to go to these amazing wild places I worked in, in Indonesia and then we both worked in Venezuela and the rainforest. And it felt like in some ways, sort of a little bit the, the frontier of, um, yeah, still discovering new species and um, and working on conservation of wild places. And then coming back here to realize, "Gosh, there's so much we don't know about this very landscape here and there's so much that can still be discovered!" And um, it might not be as exotic as a tropical rainforest, but we still have orchids on the farm and how many people know that? And, um, and so for me, I think a great joy was to be able to dive into this work and go like, "Okay, let's just take this as another amazing place that we can still learn so much about and that we can show other people what amazing other than human life is sharing this landscape with us." <laugh>

Martin (09:16):

Well, so beautifully said, and I'm remembering, uh, those conversations and, and Conrad, you brought in like a syllabus for this idea, for Farmscape Ecology Program. And I remember when I read it, being so excited by the whole idea but also by what I thought of as the organic quality of how you were approaching this; that it was really allowing for the curiosity and, and discovery of not just yourselves but others to kind of guide where the research might end up going. And I just thought it was, so to me it had such a unique quality in that organic nature that you could just say, wow, this, this is really the seed of something that could really go somewhere. And, and here we are 20 years later with your joy, which I think is infectious, your invitation for all of us to be curious about who else is out here on, on the Farm and just this invitation for others to participate as observers or citizen scientists. Can you say more about how that has informed the work from the early days 'til now, just this participatory quality of your work?

Conrad (10:39):

Partially it's a humility and just realizing that, listen, we have no idea what's going on. We have some thoughts or we have some observations. The only way we have a hope of learning more is by balancing ideas off of other people, trying to figure out how they view things. And is there a value in exploring that perspective more? We've always tried to call ourselves a research outreach organization. We've, we're trying to learn new things and we're trying to share them. And anytime you try to do research, there's an aspect that really requires kind of boring diligence. And it's hard to, to always be open to what other people are saying or observing because you kind of get down one track and then it's, it's hard to, to move another way. We have perhaps had to be a little bit more proactive than some other people because we're not in academia. We don't always interact with people who are necessarily addressing some of the research questions we're addressing, and understand where they're coming from. The blessing at the same time is, is is a converse: we're not always interacting with people who are looking at the same questions we are, but we are interacting with farmers, with people like you, with people in the Store. So we're, I think it in some ways keeps us more real, but it also means we have to go out and actively look for those connections to people that are trying to ask some of the same questions and figure out how they're doing it and exchange ideas.

Claudia (12:04):

Maybe the most impactful and successful aspect of our participatory research approach has really been our Internship Program where, basically, from the very beginning of the Farmscape Ecology Program, we invited two to, I guess our maximum was five, um, young people and sometimes not so young people... sometimes we had mid-career people, um, to join us for the summer and, and participate in whatever research we are doing and sometimes develop their own research projects. And, and we're proud to say that, that one of the, the people who was an intern with us, um, is now a professor at Cornell and other people have gone on to graduate studies and some of the other interns enjoyed the summer with us and then decided that they're gonna go into nursing or do something totally different. So for those people, it's been a great opportunity to spend a summer immersed in, in ecology of our very sort of mundane, um, landscape that's, that could be anybody's backyard in some ways. And then we've always tried to be open for student projects with, with students from the Hawthorne Valley School. We had, um, a Senior Project completed about bees many years ago. We had some students commit their community service hours to working with us and contributing to the research. And, and we had even Farm Apprentices from Hawthorne Valley Farm work with us and diving a little bit deeper into research or just helping sort of, um, at a more leisurely way with inventories of the biodiversity at the Farm. We've on and off, um, some years more intensively and more intentionally than others, invited the general public to participate in our research as well. And, and every year we have a few volunteers, um, who, who just come to us and say, "Gosh, I  really enjoy seeing what you guys are doing and I would like to learn more about it. How can I help?" So there are sort of all different levels of how people, um, can interact and, and participate in the research.

Martin (14:27):

I wanna come back to the student part, I hope, uh, because they think that pedagogical value of what you're doing is, is, is just, a vast treasure trove and uh, and also to honor the volunteers in thinking of the Soil Sisters and planting the hedgerow this, this year. But I also wanna just come to the, to the term "farmscape" because if I were to type that into my computer, it would underline it red--as in spellcheck doesn't recognize it and doesn't really, uh, agree with the term somehow. So what, what do you mean by "farmscape?" Why did you choose that term?

Conrad (15:10):

This came out of conversations with Steffen Schneider and, and Claudia, because we were trying to think of an English term that might translate, and I'm going to mess it up, so I'll let Claudia say it.

Claudia (15:24):

"Kulturlandschaft." <Laugh>

Conrad (15:26):

"Kulturlandschaft." The, the direct translation would be "cultural landscape" and that just doesn't really work very well in English. And so, but we were looking for this term that would combine the human aspect and the land aspect, the sort of non-human aspect. And that's where the term farmscape came from. And other people, yeah, it's not a great originality. We, although I think we sort of came to it independently, a lot of it, it's been used in other places. We have a book sitting here, uh, entitled "Farmscape About Farm Design." And I don't think, you know, we're not trying to go down the analogy to, to landscaping. We're trying to go down the analogy to landscape as land. By that we really mean a land that has been and continues to be shaped to some degree by agriculture; not necessarily completely dominated by it, but not absent of it. And so it's that recognition that the ecology of our land specifically includes agriculture, but specifically also includes the other ways that, that humans change the land and influence the flow of biodiversity across it.

Martin (16:50):

Well, and as your work really, um, illustrates the boundaries of the farm don't end at the fence rows and what's going on in the land around us, including how land is being developed for other human uses and needs can have, ultimately, subtle and maybe sometimes not so subtle impact on what's happening on the Farm.

Conrad (17:18):

One of the challenges is that ecology--with or without humans as part of it, but of course we're talking, we're talking here about having humans part of it--is so complicated that it's really difficult to address in its details. What we try to do is picture perspectives from which you can try to interpret the role of agriculture and other human uses in the landscape. And that sometimes translates into very particular research projects. Through time and through space, farms are not isolated. Harkening back to what I said earlier, one of the things we talk about is our ecological analogies, and that's this idea that when you look at a particular habitat on a farm, be it a shrubby meadow, be it a wet meadow, be it a hayfield... there are ingredients in that, that the organisms who have been coexisting with this landscape for eons recognize and some of that recognition is enough for them to come into that habitat and use it. And so it's, it's not that the farm field or the shrubby pasture, for example, is an exact analogy to a burnt over hilltop. It's not, you're not trying to do restoration, but if you think about it as sort of through time, where do the elements that you find in a shrubby pasture, where might you have found those elsewhere in the landscape? And how do the organisms that knew it from elsewhere say, "Oh, I can find a home here in the, in the shrubby pasture." So that's one ask. That's sort of the moving beyond the farm fences through time in some ways. And then the other aspect that I think I've kind of come to, just through recognition of my ignorance, uh, has been thinking about organisms as flow across the landscape. And so if you sort of picture it, there's all these different organisms out there--and some are plants, some are animals, microbes, what have you--and you can picture them as currents of water moving across a landscape; it has bumps in it. And so a given species might, you know, move into a certain area and say, oh, this is really a good habitat and, and kind of build up its population there, kind of like water would pool in certain places. Other places that those organisms just move through that, that landscape. Uh, kind of like they might, you know, down a river or a chute or what have you. And then you think of all these different currents, all these different watersheds, overlaid on each other and they don't completely mesh. So it's, it's kind of like you have multiple rivers that are reacting to, to different things in the landscape, all on top of each other. And then you have, in the midst of that, you, you put farms. And it's one analogy, and this doesn't completely work well, perhaps, but I kind of think of if you're a farm trying to use agroecological services, it's kind of like trying to situate a mill on a millstream because you're trying to get some sort of a benefit out of that. And yes, you're not using, you're not actually harnessing the energy of passing bumblebees, but you are in a way trying to take advantage of the, the biological watershed or the bioshed or whatever you might call it, that surround your farm in order to, to integrate well with it. And yes, use it in certain ways and maybe support it in certain ways... create your millponds, so to speak. It has to take you outside of just thinking about the farm fences. You can't think about it, you can't think about the farm just as a factory within very solid walls. You really have to think about it as something that's trying to integrate with the larger landscape.

Martin (21:21):

You've touched on the context of place and you've also brought in the context of time and the fact that this place looked different 20 years ago, a hundred years ago, 500 years ago. That brings up our ability to observe those changes and what you've been so patiently observing through your work and brings to my mind this, this, um, idea of phenology and the discovery, if I can call it that, that Conrad that you made in finding some data around phenology. And, I wonder if you could share a little bit of that story and then we could maybe go into how, how having that baseline understanding of what the landscape was like and seasonality was like in the 19th century compared to now, can inform us on, uh, how to adapt to changes that are afoot. It's a, it's a loaded question. We could take our time on it. <Laugh> Just first to discovery, 'cause that I love that story.

Conrad (22:26):

It's perhaps not correct to call it, completely, a discovery because basically what happened, is that there was this work done in the 19th century that was well-known, its time, and you go into various books from that era and you find reference to it. And then it just, people moved on. And there's lots of reports out there, there's books out there. I did find somebody after the, the paper came out, referred us to a paper, and I think it was written in the fifties or sixties, something like that. Or the person had, was talking about, I think the study of phenology in the United States and had mentioned some of this, some of the same work, but nobody really put it together with the current interest in climate change because that paper happened before there was an interest in, in such an interesting climate change. Um, and so it was more, it was, you know, to me to me it was a discovery; it was a personal discovery. Um, and that came from, I just have a fascination with old books and I have a, a fascination with trying to understand where our landscape came from. And so the, the interesting thing about the 19th century was it was a time where we started to have some really detailed natural history work going on. It's really earlier than that. Unfortunately, we have glimpses through Native American oral history and through the, the accounts of early, uh, Europeans. But the detail makes it difficult, the level of detail makes it difficult to compare in the, in the ways that we study the landscape, which is not, obviously not the only way. So it's a fa-- the 19th century to me is a fascinating era where we can still get some, we can get some relatively detailed glimpses of this previous landscape. And so I tend to, to migrate to looking at those books and just came across these references where somebody was talking about the soils of New York and said, "Okay, I'm summarizing the soils of the Taconics and here's the average weather and here's the average time that haying was happened and, and the average time that robins were showing up." You sort of go, "Wait? Where'd that data come from? What's, what's happening here?" And so then, starting to dig into that, realized that really the whole thing started in the late 1800s. There was a man, Simeon Dewitt who was, uh, I think he was geographer, he was Geographer for the Continental Army, I think was one of his titles. But he was in New York state and he was fascinated with geography and he was fascinated with trying to promote, um, New York State basically. And in that era, agriculture was the engine of development in New York state. One of the challenges, I should say, is that if you're a farmer on Long Island, for example, and you learn something about when to plant potatoes, say... you can't really communicate that directly to a farmer in St. Lawrence County because you know, you say, okay, me the farmer on Long Island, "I plant my certain a certain variety of potatoes on the 7th of June." Uh, that means nothing to somebody in St. Lawrence County because the climate is so different. And so he started thinking, "Well, how can I, how can I map climate--kind of like growing zones?" It's the same reason that we use growing zones today. How can we, how can we map climate across the, the, the state? And he came up with two things: One was, you know, actually mapping meteorology meteorological data. But he also said, "Well, what happens if we look at phenology?" Because the farmer on Long Island might say, "Okay, I plant my potatoes three weeks after shad bush flowers." And somebody in St. Lawrence County can do the same thing. It's not gonna be the same date as the calendar, but relatively speaking in this sort of cycle of the year, it might be a more or less similar place. So he wrote something at the end of it, I think it was like 17--, it was 1790s proposing this idea, and then it went silent cause he had no way of doing it. He was not in a position to, to create this network or anything like that. And then fast forward a couple of decades, and he becomes a key figure in the New York State Board of Regents, which I think if you go to, if you go to school in New York state, you have this very mixed feeling about the Board of Regents because they produced the standardized tests that one has to take. But they existed in the, in the 1820s, and he became a leading figure. He eventually became Chairman of the Board of Regents and he realized, "Aha! We're supervising all these academies, which were the predecessors of the public high schools throughout New York State--here's my network." Because these, these academies have to report to the Regents. It's, they, they had to, they filed these annual reports saying how many teachers we had, how many students, what subjects did we teach? And he said, "Okay, I'm in power now. We're gonna give you some supplies, we're gonna give you some instructions, but as part of your annual report, you have to turn in information on temperature, on rainfall, on wind direction. Plus, observations on phenology." In other words, the when things flower, when birds arrive, that sort of thing. Not all the academies did it, but for about three decades until around the time of the Civil War, they did. So from 1827 to 1830, many, uh, 1860, more or less, many of the academies did report. In 1850 or so, the, the network transitioned to the Smithsonian, which is a whole 'nother story because the first Secretary of the Smithsonian actually got his start at the Albany Institute, and he was the, one of the first people who was summarizing task, was summarizing all this data coming into the Regents. I find it a really interesting story, both because of its great reference or background that provides, its understanding where things are today, but also as an illustration of how people who try to do diligent observation, even if they don't foresee how that's gonna be used, can contribute something important. And I think that's kind of a role that we also hope FEP can play. Part of our work isn't meant for the present, it's meant for the future. That's something that people could come back to.

Claudia (28:53):

Compared to 200 years ago, many plant species flowered two to three weeks earlier in the season now than they did 200 years ago. And of course that has repercussions. Um, Anna Duhon, our <laugh>, our colleague who is also deeply involved in the phenology work, she always likes to bring this example of the apple trees--who are resistant to frost while their bud are asleep. Their flower buds are asleep during the winter, if it gets cold no matter. But then when the weather starts warming up, the buds sort of start becoming active and start getting ready to, to open up. And if you get a frost at that stage, the flowers can basically be destroyed inside the buds even before they open up. And then you don't get any, any apples during that year. And so if, if the phenology, if everything shifts earlier in the season, you have a higher chance of those frosts hitting after the, buds have basically started waking up. And, and so she points out that for several years now in the northeastern part of the county, they have not had any apples because those frosts destroyed the, the apple flowers. It's still very hard to feel certain about certain things because the, the weather just, I think with, with climate change, the other thing that happens, other than things starting earlier, you also have a lot more erratic patterns. And I'm not sure we're, we're ready to, um, give any big prescriptions or summaries.

Martin (30:37):

I think everyone can really learn from, like, not jumping to conclusions too quickly because allowing the questions to really deepen. And and I would say, the gift of not only allowing people to produce what they're observing or, or reflect on what they're observing, but just our quality of attention can be expanded through the act of observing and just being quiet and still enough to do that. That can't be understated or underappreciated in this modern time where there are just so many distractions and competition for our attention. And I think for especially our students and young people to, but for all of us, to have that opportunity to just quietly and patiently observe something is, it's a gift. But the changes are, are observable. And if I understand it correctly, it's not only the danger of frost, but also the, the misalignment of some of the other species that are on cycles that are used to plants flowering at a certain time or it's, it's a little bit haywire <laugh> out there right now. I'm not, I'm probably not using the scientific term for that. <Laugh>.

Conrad (31:57):

You are using the right term because I think hay is irrelevant is relevant to this. Whether it's climate change or not, comparing what's happening now to what was happening historically... let's us understand better where we are at the moment. Two examples of that. One is just one of the things that shows up in the phenology data is the arrival of passenger pigeons. I mean, everybody knows, almost everybody knows the passenger pigeon went extinct. To sort of see it in the context of all this other phonology data makes you see it in a community, which I, I guess for me, I just hadn't really--it's obvious--but I hadn't really thought about it. And so you get these little snippets of oh yeah, so they were arriving. Yeah, at the same time something else was happening in the forest and it lets you envision them more. And I think just that, wherever it leads you, is important to, to understand where you are at the present. I was going to, I mentioned the hay, because one of the things that people also recorded was when haying was happening. So They were recording phenology included moments, milestones in the growing season. So they were recording when haying was happening, and they were also recording when Bobolinks were arriving. So Bobolinks are one of our grassland birds. And if you look at when bobolinks nest, which is kind of mid- to late May through maybe the beginning of July, in the historical data, there was very little haying happening at that time. And there's a variety of reasons for that. It's not, it's certainly not just climate change. It has to do when you're haying, by, you're scything, you know you're gonna do that once and you're gonna do it, you know, perhaps once some of the other tasks are over. So it tended to happen in July, into August. Wasn't that it never happened earlier, but the majority of it happened. And so there was almost no overlap between the haying season and the Bobolink nesting season. Today, both because the growing season has advanced somewhat, but probably even more so because of technology. You know, you can make bailage, plastic wrapped bailage, and you can do that May or earlier and you've got tractors and you can go out and you can cut a field three times during a year. And so now haying is overlapping intensely with the nesting season of Bobolinks and other organisms. And so realizing those changes lets us, perhaps, understand a bit better why creatures like Bobolinks and Meadowlarks are in such trouble now. And it's not, we're not the first ones by any means to note this. This is, you know, out there in the birding world, this is somewhat common knowledge, but it provides a level of detail that wasn't necessarily available before. And, give us added support for thinking forward about how you, how you deal with this conflict.

Martin (35:02):

Your work directly here. And, and the most recently completed Biodiversity Report and study that highlighted or illuminated a lot of these relationships... You've never told farmers how to farm. That's, you've never seen that as your work, but you're in dialogue with the farmers and they're receptive to what is being revealed, uh, and what we're all being made aware of here. And I wonder if maybe you could speak to a couple of examples of how that conversation has changed or adapted to management practices at Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Claudia (35:40):

The grassland breeding birds are one very nice success story at this point, to some degree, <laugh> in the sense that when Conrad started looking at, at the grassland breeding birds around the hay fields and pastures at Hawthorne Valley in the early 2000s, made then Farmer Steffen aware of the fact that those grassland breeding birds are much more common in some fields than in others. And together with, with Steffen actually figured out which, which of the fields could be left to mowed late while other fields get mowed earlier. And then that, that work continued forward with Spencer, now the farmer who has wholeheartedly embraced the, the Bobolinks and is really trying to, to facilitate their continued success on the Farm by late-haying the fields that they like best, which is really great. And, and Conrad just for the, for that recent report, reviewed the, the latest data and, and could show that the fields that were early identified as the preferred Boboink fields are still the preferred Bobolink fields. Why it's only partially a success story is because the Bobolinks actually have become less on the Farm. And that is not because of anything, we think of anything that the Farm is doing, but it is because they have become less overall in this country over that period of the last 20 years. And so there are forces happening outside the, the control of the farmer that are impacting those birds, but make it even more important that we do what we can on the Farm here to support those species. That's one example, that we feel we've had a very, a very successful interaction with the farmers. I guess another one is the establishment of what we call the riparian corridors throughout the farm. So Hawthorne Valley Farm, um, has several streams going through it, smaller ones, bigger ones, and um, when we arrived at the Farm, most of those streams were still grazed to the edge of the, the water cows had access to the whole length of the stream. And then farmer Steffan Schneider had already thought of ways, um, how to change that and, and had begun fencing out certain stream sections so that the cows would have only access to some areas of the stream for drinking and also for crossing the stream to go to the, the pastures on the other side. And then over the last 20 years, little by little, the farmers have diligently worked on, on trying to basically design the grazing system and the fencing system and the internal pathways on the Farm in a way to minimize any direct contact of the cowherd with the stream. And to give the stream wide, wide bans of undisturbed vegetation on both sides of, of their banks, which in most cases has beautifully all by itself, reforested or re-vegetated. Some of it is still in wet meadow, some of it is in shrubland and some of it has grown into trees since that's a very positive evolution of the land use at the Farm. And, and I think it benefits the cows <laugh> and those, those riparian corridors, those vegetated areas accompanying streams going through the farmland are amazing corridors for wildlife, um, movement through the Farm, their habitat in and of themself. There's a lot of bird activity and, we imagine, a lot of insect activity. We haven't actually studied that in any detail. There are benefits to the stream water, as well, if it's shaded and kept cooler and less sediment is brought in and less manure is brought in. Of course the water quality, um, also benefits. So those are are two of the highlights that I can think of.

Martin (40:05):

We will, uh, actually put a link if with your permission to the report and also to the paper, uh, that was in the Journal of Ecology that Conrad and Anna Duhon, uh, co-authored on phenology. So we'll put some of the references for listeners to go deeper and, and, and, and your website, which I always warn people <laugh>, "Make sure you have a lot of time!" because you could, uh, you could just get, uh, drawn in and stay there for a long time, when what we actually want is for you to go out and take a walk on the Farm.

Claudia (40:39):

And another, another link maybe would also be to our blog, "The Wonder Wanders." Yes. Because I think that is, those are nice bite-sized, seasonally appropriate place-based glimpses into what's happening in nature around us right now and invitations for people to go out and observe themselves.

Martin (41:01):

Uh, we will certainly put that in. And that brings me to another question, which is along with this observing here, the changes you've also observed in the wider county changes, and you've had the benefit of actually meeting this ecologist that had written a book about this Columbia County...?

Claudia (41:19):

Yeah. He, he was actually a botanist and his name was Rogers McVaugh. And he was a young man in the 1930s who was given the opportunity to document the wild growing plants in Columbia County at that time for a couple of summers while he was still a botany student. Um, he spent time at his parents' farm in Kinderhook and drove his father's model T-Ford through the country, or through the county, and yeah. And documented the wild growing plants throughout the county. And then the manuscript of his report, which he calls "The Flora of Columbia County Area New York," was finally published in the 1950s out of Albany, out of the state museum. And that has, has become the basis for our botanical work here. And we did have the opportunity to actually meet Rogers McVaugh when he was 98 years old and to interview him and spend some, some days with him, he was in North Carolina at the time, to talk with him about his experiences, documenting the plants and ask him questions. And, and it was great to, to sort of get this glimpse into what it was like to be a botanist in the 1930s. For example, he was saying he never, in those three summers that he spent in Columbia County never saw a deer, um, which is hard to believe now. <laugh>.

Martin (42:46):

Wow. <laugh> Wow.

Claudia (42:49):

Um, he also said that posted signs were no issue--that he had no issue being able to access land and explore the area. And, and that is hard to believe now where a lot of the land is posted and you have to be very careful and respectful of the current landowners when you go and botanize. And then, of course, it gave us a great basis to compare what were the wild growing plants like then and what are they like now? And we can see that certain species have declined a lot, mostly probably due to changes in land use and probably the increased deer herd has something to do with it. Climate change might have something to do with it, but also a lot of European species have been introduced since the 1930s and found our climate really ideal for themselves. And they have spread and are considered invasive species now, which are species that Rogers McVaugh did not have to deal with in the 1930s. So, and we're very fortunate to, to have that baseline. And again, as Conrad says, sometimes I think people who, who do a piece of diligent work like that can't foresee how it's being used in the future. And Rogers, I think, was really happy to see that there's this new initiative to revisit the flora of Columbia County and, and that his, his baseline work is actually used to learn and then to compare. Um, yeah, so, so our forthcoming field guide, it finally has a title, we're gonna call it "From the Hudson to the Taconics: An Ecological and Cultural Field Guide to the Habitats of of Columbia County New York." It's a little bit long, but it says it all. <Laugh>.

Martin (44:35):


Claudia (44:37):

And, and the, the Field Guide is basically an invitation for people to go out and explore the patterns in the landscape and to make themselves more familiar with the other than human life that shares the land with us. And as a tool to do that, we offer 34 habitat chapters. So we have 34 types of habitat. Examples are hayfield and pasture; hemlock forest; wet meadow, upland shrubland. And each of those chapters we go through and we call it "first glimpse." So how does it feel when you're actually in that habitat? Some of the observation that we've made, how, how to us that habitat is different from other habitats. And then we describe where do the habitats occur in Columbia County? And we offer maps with public areas so that people can go and, and actually experience those habitats. And then we go through and just make an invitation what to look for in those habitats, which plants and animals are common and typical and which ones are actually rare and special in each habitat. And then we talk about stewardship ideas, like if you would like to have that habitat to continue being around in the landscape, what do you need to consider and how can that best be accomplished? We speak about the history of the habitat: How did it come to be? What did it mean for people in the past and what does it mean now? Perspectives on the habitat. So that's where our colleague Anna Duhon's work comes in; she has done extensive interviews with people and taken people out into habitats and recorded their reactions to them. So we get a glimpse of how other people perceive the habitats and what they mean to them. And then each of the chapters ends with an explicit invitation of how to interact with the habitat--some fun ideas as what one can do there. So yeah, we're really excited. Hopefully we'll get it to the printer early next year and it will be in your hands late next year. <laugh>.

Martin (46:44):

Well, I wanna thank you both and I remember early on you're describing the work as an invitation for people to become interested... to maybe form a greater understanding of the land, to then form hopefully a more compassionate view of the land. And, to then come to love the land. And I think love is really where we all want to land in the end. And so I'm going to end with a quote from Wendell Berry that I just read this morning in his latest book, "The Need to Be Whole," that made me think of the two of you. And Wendell says, "Only people who know their land can effectively love it. And only by loving it for a long time, can they competently, though never completely, know it."

Claudia (47:37):

Yep. He's got it. <laugh>.

Martin (47:40):

Yep. And, and so did both of you and I thank you both so much for your work, for your inspiration, for your friendship, and for your care of our land. Thank you.

Conrad (47:51):

Thanks for your encouragement and your support and viewpoints that you've shared with us.

Claudia (47:56):

Yeah, we probably wouldn't be here were hadn't it been for your early support and continuing support and, and thanks for inviting us to come today.

Heather (48:14):

If you'd like to learn more about Farmscape's work, visit their website, which is chock-full of information, including their progress of the season's historical phenology project in "Wonder Wanders" which began as a way for Farmscape's team to share the beauty and inspiration of the natural world during the pandemic. You can also follow their Facebook page for regular Wonder Wanders postings, event announcements, and more. They can be reached at 

Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley's Roots to Renewal Podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our work a reality. Please consider making a donation to support us today. If you'd like to help us in other ways, please help spread the word about this podcast by sharing it with your friends and leaving us a rating and review. Special thanks to our sponsor, Tierra Farm, who makes this podcast possible. We're also grateful to Grammy Award-winning artist Aaron Dessner for providing our soundtrack. And to Aaron Ping for his editing expertise.