An Undergraduate Course in Sustainable Agriculture and Biodiversity

University of New England at River Bend Farm: A partnership with University of New England models our commitment to collaborative research.

This Fall, River Bend Farm is the host site for Professor Thomas Klak’s University of New England ENV 398 Sustainable Agriculture and Biodiversity course. The course teaches ways to put into practice ecological methods that increase biodiversity and food production. Fourteen junior and senior undergraduates, one The Ecology School employee (Leanna Bonds, Development Associate), and one FOAMer (Ally Muir, Science and Environment Teacher at The New School in Kennebunk) are participating in new projects every week on the property and each student is required to commit 45 volunteer hours to one of the projects.

Tagging Monarch Butterflies

On a bright Thursday afternoon in mid-September UNE students identified, tagged, and released dozens of Monarch butterflies on River Bend Farm’s front porch. With the population of Monarchs in decline, protecting eggs and providing safe habitats for them to develop is a step many ecologist and nature lovers alike take to aid population stabilization. Professor Klak collected eggs from River Bend Farm and kept them in his care through their first three lifecycle stages (egg, larvae, pupa). When the adult butterflies emerged, students identified the butterfly’s gender (females have thicker wing vein pigmentation and no small black dot, or hindwing pouch) and tagged them with tiny stickers to track their migration. Monarchs travel 3,000 miles from Canada and The United States to southwestern Mexico and congregate in the oyamel fir trees of Michoacan. Monarch tagging helps people measure the success of conservation efforts using real data collected by citizens in many locations.

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Native Plant Nursery

Through heavy rain and muggy fall days, the class dug, potted, and holed-in native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers to establish a native plant nursery on the lower portion of the Farm’s front field. The local ecotype plants were collected on the property (rather than having to purchase comparable specimens) and will be used by landscapers when our new facilities are complete. The variety of species is representative of the native landscape and, if they survive the transplanting process and winter, they should be well adapted to their permanent relocation in the landscape design. 

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Edible Ecotones

In late September, students planted edible ecotones to bridge the gap between the farmland’s abrupt transition from field to forest. Ecotones are distinct natural groupings of plants, soil, fungi, birds, etc. that exist where distinct ecosystems meet. Ecotones are of great environmental importance, providing a home for a large number of species and are considered a habitat or greater genetic diversity. Ecotones serve as “buffer-zones” protecting neighboring ecosystems from possible environmental damage, among many other important roles.

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The plants were scattered about a plot of cleared land at a forest edge according to their radius to ensure sufficient growing room. The plants were not clumped together as a species, but rather dispersed randomly within the plot to demonstrate species diversity within an ecotone edge. Once placement was deemed adequate, holes were dug and the plants were planted, watered, and given nutrients to promote quick and healthy growth. This edible ecotone edge is designed to reduce the sharpness of the forest meeting an open field and meld the two together in a comfortable union. If done correctly, this edible ecotone edge will grow out and seamlessly connect the open field to the tall perimeter of the forest, thus displaying a softer edge.
— Alexa Marquis, UNE Student