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FARMING FOR FIREFLIES - Following Aldo Leopold’s nearly century-old conservation blueprint, this is how I'm working to restore wildlife habitat to a hay farm.


Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Ryan Graves preparing a food plot for wildlife.

Homecomings are sweet.


I lived in the Texas Panhandle’s southeastern corner for 26 years. On a whim, my wife and I decided to move our family back to our hometown in Fannin County, in North Texas. Not sure where we’d settle, we looked around a bit. It wasn’t until my brother offered to sell me a farm that had been in our family for the past 40 years that I knew I found the right place.It’s not a big place by Texas standards, but it was the right place at the right price, and it holds loads of promise.   



Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Coyote in the hayfield.

THE FARM


When my wife and I decided to purchase the farm, I remembered a big tree standing alone in the west hay field. A hackberry, it sits next to an old, brick-lined cistern. My guess is the cistern was built in the 1940s to store water for a now-razed farmhouse. The tree must have been planted and allowed to grow to provide shade over the water storage spot. While the house and the associated barns and pens are now long gone, the tree still stands. It’s a relic of a bygone day. To honor the people who once lived here, we now call the place Hackberry Farm.


Biologists agree that habitat fragmen­tation is one of the leading problems affecting wildlife in Texas. Large, eco­logically intact parcels of land are getting subdivided and sliced up into smaller properties. People build houses or “barndominiums” and sculpt the land into some semblance of what they believe “tamed” looks like.


Over the past 10 years in Fannin County, intact habitat has been flooded by two new reservoirs to provide water for municipalities far away. Over and over, land is bought and sliced up into smaller and smaller parcels to satiate the desire for rural living. Good, bad or indifferent, the owners put their management stamp on the land.


Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
A great egret catching crawfish in the wetland.

To satisfy the requirements of the local taxing entities and qualify for agricultural exemptions on the property tax rolls, small parcels become livestock or hay farms, thus depleting more and more wildlife habitat.


Look, my total land ownership equals 35 acres. I am part of the problem. My farm is a hay farm. It is a considerable monoculture that consists mostly of a single species of grass. Except for the areas where trees line the margins of the three creeks that run through the farm, the land has grown hay for more than 40 years.


I’m determined to change that. So, while I'll admit that I am part of the ecological problem that limits healthy wildlife ecosystems, I can also be part of the solution.


“Game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire and gun,” noted naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1933 book, Game Management.


How can we apply Leopold’s “tools” to Hackberry Farm?


For years, lands once reserved for wildlife have been converted to cattle grazing. In places where the habitat was overgrazed, the rangeland and wildlife suffered.


Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Bluewing teal preening.

The plow was a detriment to wildlife populations as crops replaced native forbs and grasses. Since the biggest and smallest wildlife species thrive on plant diversity, the crop monoculture displaced wildlife populations. In fact, what’s considered the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history — the Dust Bowl — resulted from wholesale plowing and denuding the native grasslands. It’s estimated that the wind eroded more than 1.2 billion tons of soil over a 100-million-acre area.


The ax is a broad term describing clearing and cutting via mechanical methods — whether it’s forests or brush lands. Along with the ax, fire has been used as a tool to destroy habitats.


As for the gun: In the height of the market hunting days, wholesale species eradication occurred as the country grew westward. Hunters provided wild game meat, hides and other wildlife products to feed railroad crews, mining camps and the like, and even to outfit fashion-forward people in the cities. Thinking the country’s wildlife resources were infinite, hunters engaged in the wholesale slaughter of animals like deer, elk and bison. In the case of species like the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, the killing was absolute.


As Leopold noted, the tools used to diminish wildlife populations are the same ones used to restore them. That’s what I aim to do here on Hackberry Farm — restore the habitat and wildlife populations. In short, I am doing my part to keep Texas wild.    



Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Barred owl taking an afternoon nap.


THE CHALLENGES


Johnson grass is a formidable plant that covers the hay fields like a thick, ugly blanket. For years, it’s been the chief crop that grows on the land. Two to three times a year, a local hay farmer rumbles in with his hay-cutting equipment. After cutting the grass and curing it in the North Texas sun for a couple of days, he rolls the dried grass into hay bales that he stores to provide winter forage for his livestock. 


On the surface, the farming protocols don’t sound too bad. The problem is that Johnson grass is an introduced species that doesn’t belong here. It was brought from Turkey to Alabama in the 1800s as livestock forage. Since then, it’s spread over much of the southern United States. When it grows in pastures, the plant is considered somewhat valuable. When it grows in cropland, it is a nuisance. While it does provide a bit of food value for wildlife via the seeds, too much of a good thing is, well … too much of a good thing.


Johnson grass is hard to control because the grass produces many seeds that germinate easily. In addition, its rhizomatous growth (creeping underground roots) enables many more plants to spout. Therefore, if you plow a field with Johnson grass, you are likely to cut up the roots and spread the species.


My first big challenge is eliminating the invasive species and creating a native (and more diverse) pasture where the Johnson grass currently dominates. To assist me in my endeavors, I enlisted the help of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and its Pastures for Upland Birds Program for technical assistance. This program provides cost-share incentives and technical guidance to private landowners to restore native grass and forb vegetation on pastures and hayfields dominated by exotic grasses such as Bermuda grass, bahia grass and Old World bluestems. My property couldn’t fit the criteria better.


Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Bullfrog

The program aims to stem the tide of the grassland habitat decline. As prairie habitats have been converted to urban or agricultural use, the number of grassland bird species is in a freefall. According to the National Audubon Society, grassland bird species have declined 40 percent since 1966. That’s the average.


The decline among some species like the lesser prairie-chicken or the bobwhite quail is much greater. Research suggests that habitat loss is the chief culprit.


Before I even asked for help from TPWD, I began work on the property. When I bought the place, it already had two shallow-water wetlands. To improve the water resources, I added a pond and built a small weir dam to back up water on the creek that runs down the gut of the blacklands. I began managing the wetlands by using a tractor shredder to control the plants while adding and subtracting water as needed to promote plant diversity.


In addition, I’ve planted summer food plots of sunflower and milo and left them standing for overwintering birds. I’ve sculpted cedar and created brush piles to provide cover for animals like rabbits and opossums. I planted a quarter-acre pollinator space that consists of native wildflowers.


I’ve carved up small areas to cultivate and improve for diversity, and I provide a constant source of supplemental feed for whatever animal comes to eat. I aim to create a patchwork of habitats that benefits the smallest animal to the largest one. I’ve even tried to eliminate feral pigs when the opportunity arises.


Finally, I’ve conducted small burns to improve forage diversity in areas where Johnson grass dominates.


I’m using Leopold’s ax, plow, fire and gun to solve a vexing ecological problem.




Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Fireflies on Hackberry Farm.


THE OPPORTUNITY


In early July, my wife and I walked around the property, checking out the land and learning as much as possible about the place. We have a patch of hardwoods on the southeast corner, and there, I made it a point to leave the forest floor littered with dead trees and limbs that fell during the winter ice storm of 2022. The decomposing trees feed the soil and countless insects. I see indigo buntings and painted buntings flitting in the woods, getting one last bite before roosting. 


We’ve lived in our new house for about a year. We strategically built our new home so we could look over our property and see the daily ebb and flow of nature before us. As late spring (and eventually summer) settled in over the blacklands, daily walks into the pastures and creeks revealed something new and undiscovered each time. I grew up on the land around here. While familiarity often breeds complacency, I still greet each day with the hope that I’ll see the world in an unwitnessed way.


After watching fireworks light up the sky on the Fourth of July with family from atop a hill nearby, Kristy and I headed back home and enjoyed the coolness of the evening. As day morphed into night, the sting of summer heat was replaced by the coolness and stillness of a summer evening in the country.


We stopped on our buggy periodically to listen to whip-poor-wills sing their eerie song from deep in the woods and contemplate life’s more pressing matters. In the distance, a barred owl signaled his presence. Soon we were back on our property, and as we slipped past the wetlands, the best fireworks show of the evening commenced.


In front of us, hundreds of fireflies flitted about the margins between the trees and the meadow.


Even on the darkest nights, the tiny insects shine a light so that others can find them. I just know there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.


It’s a sight that compels me to manage the property, even if for just the fireflies alone.


When you take the time to look, it’s incredible how much is around you. On our small patch of blackland dirt, I’ve identified 63 species of birds, 13 species of mammals, 11 species of reptiles, three species of amphibians, three species of crustaceans, three species of fish, 24 different insects and a staggering 148 species of plants and trees.


Each time I try, I find more and more. I estimate I still have about six acres to fully investigate.


The lesson is simple: The elements are here to create a thriving wildlife property; I just have to nurture them.


For two hours, TPWD biologist Ragan White and I looked around the property to tick the qualifying boxes on the Pastures for Upland Birds Program. While it’s still too early to tell if my property fulfills the requirements for program admittance, White gives me good advice nonetheless. In my mind’s eye, I can see the potential of this property to provide a valuable slice of wildlife habitat in an ever-changing Texas.


With ax, plow, cow, fire and gun, it’s a goal worth pursuing.



Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop




198 views9 comments

9 Comments


Hi Russell,

The comment below is from,

Tina Sparger Buice


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Your story is so inspiring and heart warming. I am so glad you and your wife came back home. I’m also so glad you’re so happy in Fannin County. What you’re doing and how you’re working is truly amazing and wonderful! I hope the TDWL Commission will continue helping you and your mission. I’m so proud of you and would love to see you when I come home sometime!

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Thank you! Come by anytime.

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I enjoy reading your posts and am excited for the positive changes you are creating on your ranch. You have a good thing going and the goal appears to be to make it better. Best of luck with all your efforts.

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Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate your comments!

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An ambitious but no doubt rewarding endeavor. Good for you and your wife. It can see hopeless when looking at the larger landscape and understanding how much has been compromised. Yes, all you can do is affect your piece of the planet and hopefully, influence others.


My husband and I live on a much smaller piece of forested land in Western MA. It is second growth forest here as this was once sheep country. Every tree was cut down for pasture. We can see the remnants of the old stone walls everywhere. Unfortunately, it means that most of the big trees are all of the same "age". We don't have a diverse understory.


With the advise of a local forester…


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That sounds like a worthy project and I look forward to hearing your progress!

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I hope I get to see this place some day! And stick around locally for a workshop and instruction. Such a great endeavor! Much encouragement to you!

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Thank you, Christine. I hope you can make it out as well.

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