Connect the Drops

Partnering with Farmers

Agriculture’s footprint on the planet is significant. We recognize that farmers and ranchers historically are good stewards of the land. They are now also among our greatest allies in conservation. Together, we’re working to protect clean water and wildlife habitat.


Maryland’s Eastern Shore faces many challenges to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. A new bedding material for poultry houses may be part of the solution.

More than 4,000 poultry houses spread across the Delmarva Peninsula. Traditionally, growers have relied on pine shavings as a bedding material for their flocks. Once readily available as scrap from mills, shavings are now in limited supply and becoming more costly.

Working with partners, the Conservancy proposed a potential solution: switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). This native perennial is one of the most efficient grasses at removing nitrogen from the soil. Its deep-rooted system acts as an anchor, preventing erosion and helping to reduce surface runoff into streams and rivers. This combination can produce significantly cleaner water.

A year-long study of eight poultry houses demonstrated that chopped switchgrass also performed well as an alternate bedding material. The Conservancy is now providing incentives to poultry farmers to begin planting switchgrass, and several hundred acres have been planted in the Chester River watershed. Additional switchgrass crops will need to be established on the lower Delmarva Peninsula where there is a heavy concentration of poultry houses. We aim to have 1,000 acres on Delmarva planted in switchgrass by 2020.

California: Saving the Pacific Flyway

California’s Central Valley is the heart of the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory path for millions of birds that travel up and down the West Coast. Much of this landscape, which once included some 4 million acres of wetland habitat, has been retooled for farming and other uses over the past century. Today, just 250,000 acres of wetlands remain, largely protected in federal and state wildlife refuges. These remnants still function as vital winter resting grounds and migratory pit stops.

To bolster the flyway, we’re working with farmers in the Sacramento Valley to turn rice fields into pop-up habitats. Combining crowd-sourced observations from birdwatchers, satellite data and economic incentives, we create “on demand” wetlands that provide critical rest and refueling for migratory birds like sandhill cranes, white-fronted geese and dunlins.

The Conservancy’s BirdReturns program rents habitat rather than buying it, paying farmers to keep water in their fields during critical weeks in February and March, primarily to provide shallow water and mud flat habitat. Initial results from 2014 showed, on average, 30 times more shorebirds than nonparticipating fields—and as much as 50 times more in late March, when fields have traditionally gone totally dry.

Field trials are being conducted to see how corn and alfalfa fields can be better managed for birds, potentially paving the way to take the program to the San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of the Central Valley and another agricultural bastion.

Engaging with farmers represents our best hope to encourage new practices that are beneficial to both agriculture and nature.

The Nature Conservancy’s pragmatic, science-based programs and partnerships help keep water clean and accessible, here and around the world. Connect the drops between clean water, The Nature Conservancy and you. Visit