The grass is growing - little bluestem, that is!
"The grass is growing at the Parker Farm but don't expect to see URI #2 or Kentucky blue grass. We have just finished seeding three acres with little bluestem and Indian grass," said John Collins, a director of Conanicut Island Land Trust.
Working with $35,000 of financial assistance along with technical advice from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Conanicut Island Land Trust has expanded the grasslands at the Parker Farm on East Shore Road in an effort to create high value habitat on the forty-eight acre property acquired as gift from Bert Parker in 2000. The Land Trust applied for the funds through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (NRCS). This program is designed to assist landowners in creating, restoring, and enhancing wildlife habitat and natural ecosystems and generally pays for 75% of an approved project.
For most of the 20th century the property was owned and operated by the Vieira family. Mary Ragland, formerly Mary Vieira, recalls that when her brothers, Alfred and Ernest, returned from World War II, they grew hay and alfalfa which they sold to farmers for feed and leased the farm house to the parents of Manny Dutra who now lives across from the Jamestown School. When the Vieira farming operation ceased in the late 1980's, the existing hayfields and pastures quickly reverted to red cedar and invasives. This Spring the Land Trust, with the help of the NRCS, started the process of restoring the land to the fields that historically existed. Three acres of overgrown fields bordering East Shore Road have been transformed to open grassland. These grasslands are contiguous with three acres of existing fields owned by the Land Trust and approximately ten acres of open fields owned by a third party, creating sixteen acres of uninterrupted grassland. This grassland is bordered on the north by the heavily wooded thirty-two acre Rembijas property acquired by the Land Trust and the Town in 2002.
Joe Bachand, WHIP program manager at NRCS, said "This is a great use of WHIP funds, and the Land Trust has been a willing and able partner for the project. The combination of grassland habitat, shrubby areas and contiguous mature forest is ideal. The warm season grasses provide food and nesting places for a wide variety of songbirds. Hawks and owls will also benefit from mice and other rodents found within the grasslands created by the Land Trust. From an aesthetic point of view, you should not expect much the first season, as it generally takes awhile for warm season grasses to get established, but as the grasses take hold, the fields will be beautiful. Then once the grasses fill in the wildlife will soon follow."
With the well-documented loss of farming in New England, there has been a sharp reduction in the amount of grasslands. Lands that were formerly hay fields and pasture have become forested or developed. Kate Giorgi, a wildlife biologist at NRCS, said, "As a result, many species that are dependent upon grasslands for food and cover have also been in decline. Songbirds such as the bobolink and Eastern meadowlark which build their nests on the ground require grasslands for breeding, while during fall migration, warblers and sparrows descend upon meadows and fields, particularly those near the coast, to feed upon wildflower and grass seeds. The northern harrier, listed as state endangered, and New England cottontail, a species of state concern, also benefit from grasslands.
Explaining the new landscape at the Parker property, Ms. Giorgi said, "We are excited about the creation of grasslands at the Parker property because a fifteen acre block of open land will provide meaningful habitat for species such as Eastern meadowlark which would not be attracted to a smaller field. The wildlife value of these fields will be immensely improved with the seeding of warm season grasses by the Land Trust this spring. Unlike traditional cool season pasture and hay grasses, warm season grasses, such as little bluestem and Indian grass, are native to the United States and mature late in summer. They provide valuable food and year round cover to wildlife."
Land Trust president Quentin Anthony said, "This process started with Elizabeth Allen and Mary Hutchinson who convinced the Board that this was an opportunity that could not be ignored and the 25 percent financial contribution from the Land Trust was worth the end result. Throughout the fall of 2005 and winter and spring of 2006, board members Jim Estes and John Collins have pushed this project hard so the 2006 planting season would not be lost. Despite changes in the scope and design of the project, Jim and John forged ahead. John coordinated with NRCS almost weekly, and Jim designed the bidding specifications, oversaw the bidding process, and supervised the work by Fred's Tree Service. The land is now cleared and seeded, and by next year we should have warm season grasses flourishing in the fields. The Parker property is open to the public with a parking lot on the west side of East Shore Road. We encourage the community to take a walk through the property and watch the project as it unfolds this summer and the years ahead."