Farmer uses bats in organic operation
Nights, Jessica Smith likes to sit in a folding chair in her backyard and watch the evening show. It’s been playing with hardly a let-up since she installed a bat house on her barn two years ago.
Day shuts down, night opens up. Bats, hundreds of them, hurtle into the darkening sky to do what bats do best: eat insects.
“It’s really amazing to see bats take care of business,” said Smith.
You could call the bats unpaid partners in her business, Strong Bird Farm. Smith and her spouse, Tara Orlowski, are using bats instead of pesticides at their farm in Monroe, N.C.
The farm, a tidy 8-acre parcel a 40-minute drive south of Charlotte, is something of an outlier in produce production; few farmers consciously use bats instead of pesticides in their operations. But Smith is convinced that others will see something beautiful – economical, too – in the leathery-winged fliers that come out every night to eat insects.
That’s not just wishful thinking. Some researchers estimate that bats save American agriculture more than $3 billion annually in pest control. That averages out to about $74 per acre per average farmer.
The two-year experiment, said Smith, so far has worked out well. The produce she’s producing is sold to local restaurants. It’s pesticide-free, a strong selling point.
“Her products are terrific,” said Heidi Billotto, a Charlotte writer and television personality who extols the virtues of organic food. Billotto, who opened a cooking school in 1982, also blogs regularly about locally produced food.
Foods free of pesticides, she said, are just better – tastier, too.
“It’s grown the way a plant was meant to be grown,” she said.
Billotto did not know that Strong Bird Farm employs bats. “I think that’s really cool,” she said.
Smith and Orlowski, both 42, moved to Monroe three years ago. The couple had been working at a Sussex, N.J., cattle farm, but wanted to to take advantage of the South’s longer growing season.
They settled on a tract for sale with a barn, fencing and a pond. It was lovely, and it was soon theirs. They called it Strong Bird. The name pays homage to the British slang word for a woman – “bird.” And “strong”? Smith laughed. “It was better than ‘Angry Lady Acres’.”
The pond, the duo discovered, was a pretty problem. It attracted all sorts of flying insects, including mosquitoes.
“I’m a magnet for mosquitoes,” Smith said. “I just wanted a way to get those skeeters off me.”
Smith also was embarrassed to invite friends to a spot where bugs feasted on the guests. She turned to bats to make the farm more hospitable.
Smith learned about their voracious appetites – an average bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes a night – while getting the farm certified as a natural wildlife habitat. The National Wildlife Federation offers a program creating habitats where wildlife thrives.
She bought a bat house from a local building-supply store. Not long after, watching some guys work on her barn roof, Smith asked one to attach the bat house to the wall, near the peak. It only took a few moments.
With a mixture of hope and skepticism – Would bats really move in to something as simple as a box on a wall? – Smith waited for results.
She didn’t wait long. “There was a lot less insect activity near the barn than in other areas of the farm.”
Smith wanted more bats. She called her dad in Florida with a simple request: “Dad, could you make me a bat house?” Her father looked at the design, was intrigued, and got busy. He built an additional house.
Now, Smith is regaled with a nightly show – rewarded, too, with produce she knows is pesticide-free. She is working to get Strong Bird certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an organic farm.
She’s also working to get others enthused about bats. Smith recently gave a bat house to a fellow grower and neighbor, Mary Roberts.
Roberts said she hopes to “actively encourage” the bats living at Windcrest Farm, an organic operation Roberts owns with her husband, Ray Tarlton. The house, she promised, would be erected soon.
She finds herself in the position where Smith and Orlowski were two years ago – curious, and hopeful.
“With the bat house, we hope to encourage them [bats] for pest management,” said Roberts, whose farm list of produce includes tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs and flowers. “I think this is going to be really interesting.”
Smith, meantime, is watching her latest crop, dwarf bananas, take root and grow. She also plans to grow peas, potatoes and other produce in spring.
“I’m very surprised how well this has worked out,” said Smith. “I’m surprised more people don’t try it.”
Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist
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