2008-04-17 / News

Time to invest in hayfield 'market'

Jamestown residents are being asked this month to "invest" in hayfields on the island in the second year of a unique test by University of Rhode Island economists who are trying to establish investment markets for ecological services.

The investment will compensate farmers who agree to refrain from mowing the hayfields and limit cattle grazing during the nesting season of the bobolink, a grassland nesting bird whose population is declining in New England.

"We'd like to double or even triple the participation rate this year, and we're confident we can do that," said Stephen Swallow, URI professor of natural resource economics. "We received a great deal of feedback from residents during last year's project, much of which indicated that we needed to be clearer in our literature about how the program works."

"But we can't yet do everything the residents want us to do, like reveal which field they are investing in or hold money from one year to the next," he added. "The project is still a new concept, and if we're going to learn from it and make it work in other communities in the future, we have to stick to our plan without introducing new factors that may make our results difficult to interpret for future improvements. So we hope residents will work with us in this early going."

About 350 Jamestown residents participated in the market experiment in 2007, and nearly 200 of them invested from $5 to $200, raising enough money to delay the harvest in three hay fields.

Residents received mailings in early March outlining the program and their investment options. Posters have been placed around the town, and advertisements are running in the Jamestown Press.

"The investment market runs until April 30, which means people who want to participate must do so by that date," said Emi Uchida, URI research assistant professor. "We hope that those who choose not to invest will indicate that on the reply form and return it to us. Replying 'no' is still considered a form of participation in the market."

In the project, Jamestown residents have been randomly assigned to one of four hayfields, each with a different pricing approach designed to ensure that the project collects only as much money as is needed to protect the bobolink habitat. In every case, investors will receive their money back if not enough money is raised to implement the project on a given field. Investors will also receive partial refunds if more money is raised than is necessary.

"This way, either investors get a return on their investment from the improved protection of grassland birds that will remain as part of Jamestown's landscape, or they will get their money back," Swallow said.

The researchers said that participation in the program last year may have been hampered by confusion with a farmland preservation referendum being debated then in Jamestown. "Our project can work hand in hand with the town's efforts to preserve farmland," said Swallow. "This market can help to ensure that the protected farms can continue to be working farms by helping to create an additional revenue stream for farmers."

"This market approach is brand new," Uchida said. "The Jamestown residents and farmers are experiencing one of the first experiments in the world to use a market approach of this type to enhance ecosystem services."

The project is funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and matching funds from URI and EcoAsset Markets, Inc. For additional details, visit www.jamestownbobolinkproject. com.

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