M.E.S.M. student develops program to boost biodiversity


By Rudi Hempe
CELSnews editor

Come next spring, Kathryn Zuromski is on track to get her masters degree under the Masters of Environment Science and Management Program (M.E.S.M.) and while that will be reward enough for her efforts the last two years, she won’t be satisfied until her project becomes part of the sustainability landscape.

Zuromski is developing a “Biodiversity Certification Program for RI Farms and Forests” and if her project is put into effect it should go a long way toward protecting the environment and give farm and forest owners added value opportunities.

Zuromski was graduated from CELS in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and conservation biology from the Department of Natural Resources Science (NRS). She subsequently found work with the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council, has done mapping and  worked for two conservation districts in Rhode Island doing such things as a livestock inventory.

When she was an undergrad, her advisor was Dr. Thomas Husband, a wildlife biologist. Husband has done considerable research in coffee plantations studying wildlife habitats in managed areas. He, Dr. David Abedon, another NRS scientist and J. Eric Scherer, who was then-state conservationist, came up with the idea that to promote biodiversity on farms and in managed forests it would be fitting to have a certification program. They applied and received a grant to launch the idea.

“They came to me one day and said ‘How would you like to go back to school?’” recalls Zuromski. Their idea was for her to enter the M.E.S.M program to create the project.

“I was doing nutrient management planning for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and was getting into more agricultural work. I am interested in local food systems in general and how people relate to them. I think people are wising up these days as to where their food comes from so having that interest and having a wildlife background, it was a perfect mix for me.”

The bulk of her work on the project is done and the outcome is a 70-page manual that can be used by landowners to help them on the way to certification of their property.

The manual has a set of standards that landowners can meet for certification. The first step is in the form of an inventory—mapping, soils analysis and wildlife habitat. Another section has to do with whole farm planning and involves goals and concerns for biodiversity conservation, planning conservation strategies and monitoring conservation actions.

Another section is concerned with water quality and, depending on the type of property, managements for forestland, croplands and livestock and pastureland. Some properties might have all of those elements.

Zuromski says certification can be earned in stages and a property owner can be considered certified if only 50 percent of the standards (water quality, crop land, pasture land and forest land) are met so long as the owner continues with the program.

A farm with a biodiversity certification can then advertise its status, have signage and perhaps labels on their products. This would appeal to consumers who increasingly care about where food and other products come from, she said. Increasingly consumers care about where their food and other natural products come from and if the site of origin is friendly to the environment, that is added value, she said.

The idea of entering a biodiversity certification program has some landowners concerned, she admits, particularly as to cost and the difficulty of going through the various steps. There would be help, she explained, in that expertise would be available through NRCS or the conservation districts (there are three in Rhode Island.) As to cost, Zuromski says her plan is to keep costs down as much as possible, especially since farming or woodland management can have only modest profitability.

The best way to launch the project, she said, is to have a pilot program and her target for that is Perry Raso, another URI graduate who owns an oyster farm in Potters Pond, South Kingstown and has a thriving restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar. Raso, who has often taken CELS students under his wing, this year took a step further in promoting local food in a sustainable manner—he bought a historic farm not far from his restaurant and started growing his own vegetables and herbs for use in his restaurant.

Zuromski thinks his operation will make an ideal model for the pilot project in that Raso has direct exposure to the public through his restaurant (Raso also gives scores of tours of his vegetable and oyster farms each year). Raso’s farm is not organically certified but he follows organic procedures.

 

The biodiversity certification project will help landowners define their property and install environmentally-friendly practices such as using natural soil amendments and preserving hedgerows for wildlife.

After meeting the 50 percent plateau of meeting the standards, landowners would strive to hit the 65 percentile and then the highest plateau which is the 80 percentile.

The challenge in Rhode Island, she pointed out, is that farms and forests are so fragmented. The key will be to get neighboring property owners to join the program so that biodiversity has elbow room—wildlife, for example, don’t obey property lines and such environmental aspects such as water quality are affected by all types of landscapes.

The major cost to property owners, she said, will be in management. “In the end you will have a more resilient farm ecosystem. Based on what I have read, you can have return benefits by conserving.”

Besides launching the pilot project with Raso, Zuromski plans to go around to farmers in the state and especially to the growing number of food outlets and restaurants who offer local foods to enlist support. The tremendous success of the farmers’ markets in the state (there are about 50 now, some of which run year-round) is testimony that consumers are supporting local products grown sustainably, she said.

The biodiversity certification program is not for everyone, she admitted, especially those who are just starting out in farming—an economically precarious time.

Zuromski’s plan is to finish up her masters in the spring and then seek a grant to implement the pilot project. She is hoping the effort can be done in concert with other entities such as the Southern RI Conservation District which covers Washington and Kent counties. Scherer is executive director of that district.

And if the whole concept has to be put on a shelf for awhile, Zuromski remains positive. She will continue with conservation work and says the manual she developed can serve as a valuable planning tool for the future of biodiversity.