Laine Farms and New Jersey Audubon awarded USDA Conservation Innovation Grant

On September 23, 2013, USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service State Conservationist Carrie Mosley announced the New Jersey recipients of the 2013 Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG). The grant program, intended to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies, supports environmental enhancement and protection in conjunction with agricultural production. jim laine of Laine Farms with Spelt (PARKE)

One of only three CIG projects funded in the state was Laine Farms (Hillsborough, NJ) who will work with New Jersey Audubon to pursue a 3-year project on the “Use of a Specialty Commodity Crop to Aid and Maximize Habitat Values for Grassland Dependent Bird Species.”  

With a limited economic market for native warm-season grass, along with trends in crop production moving towards increased corn and soybean production, Laine Farms and NJ Audubon are proposing an alternative to the standard biofuel crops. The alternative crop Spelt, is anticipated to provide agricultural producers with economic diversity and stability while also providing critical habitat for grassland dependent birds.

Spelt (Triticum aestivum var. spelta) is a sub-species of common wheat. Spelt is used for both human consumption, as well as an alternative livestock feed. Spelt is similar in physical structure and growing-season to the typical native warm-season grasses used for biofuel and can conceivably accommodate the needs of grassland dependent birds. The use of this surrogate crop also provides the producer with a viable commodity crop that already has an established and growing market in the United States, unlike the native warm-season grass for biofuel here in the Northeast. Furthermore, it can be planted with conventional equipment and is completely harvestable without the reliance on and/or restrictions of harvest presented under current USDA programs.

From an agriculture production standpoint, incorporating spelt into an existing crop rotation has benefits to the farming operations overall with improvement to soil and water quality. Spelt typically uses less fertilizer (e.g., Spelt requires about 25-50% less nitrogen than wheat) and chemicals for weed control than conventional crops and it can be utilized as an alternative cover crop. Spelt grows successfully in poorer soils (i.e., poorly-drained, low-fertility) than wheat, including heavy clay, and can even tolerate dryer conditions as well, including sandy soils. Spelt is drought tolerant and does not require irrigation, making it similar to native grasses. Based on this information alone, regarding soil and moisture requirements, spelt theoretically could be grown in every physiographic region of New Jersey. 

100Spelt is also very resistant to frosts and other extreme weather conditions and the grain's exceptionally thick husk protects it from pollutants and insects. As spelt is a pure, original, grain and not biologically modified in any way, it is very resistant to the crop diseases that often plague modern crop varieties and it grows quite successfully without the application of herbicides,Male Bobolink at Pepe Farm (Parke) pesticides, or fungicides.

From a wildlife resource perspective, spelt is similar in structure to many of the native warm-season grasses promoted for biofuel use and more importantly spelt is typically harvested AFTER July 15. This harvest time will not impact the critical breeding bird months (i.e., April – Mid July); unlike the harvesting of cool-season grass hay crops or other grain crops such as rye, oats, barley or wheat.

The project has significant potential to resolve how to provide critical wildlife habitat on agricultural production land without sacrificing agricultural commodity (food) production. If successful this would be the first agricultural commodity crop that can be harvested without restriction, while providing critical grassland habitat to some of the rarest bird species in NJ.

This is Laine Farms’ 2nd CIG award, and the second in collaboration with New Jersey Audubon. This is New Jersey Audubon’s 4th CIG collaboration project.

Photos by John Parke (Top Right: Jim Laine showing spelt; Left: Close–up of spelt gain in husk; Right: Bobolink, a grassland species that is a Threatened species in NJ.