To kick off National Pollinator Week, Kennett Square Farmers Market manager Ros Fenton made a field visit to Swallow Hill, one of several local produce farms selling directly to the community at market every Friday. Swallow Hill is a bucolic 57-acre farm in Cochranville, where Elizabeth and Douglas Randolph have been growing together for over 25 years. Their “fine produce home grown with love” has been served in local farm-to-table restaurants for many years, and they began selling direct to KSQ Farmers Market customers in 2017. They are known for the high quality of the vegetables, blueberries, and blackberries they grow, but the story behind their produce has deep roots in land conservation and regenerative farming methods to intentionally create diverse habitats for pollinators and wildlife of all types, restore health to our connected waterways, and benefit the generations to come.

Elizabeth and Douglas framed the field visit with some guiding principles from the Xerces Society’s* Three Steps to Success for Pollinator Conservation:

  1. Recognize the native bees and bee habitat that are already on the farm.
  2. Adapt existing farm and land management practices to avoid causing undue harm to the bees already present.
  3. Provide habitat for native bees on and around the farm.

In Elizabeth’s words, with accompanying photos from the visit, we learn how these three steps are implemented with care at Swallow Hill:

1. Recognize the native bees and bee habitat that are already on the farm.

“We are still learning! We know we have bumble bees, squash bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, sweat bees, digger bees, and leaf-cutter bees. We see them in both cultivated and natural areas that are open and sunny. In the early spring, we see the queen bumble bees along the edge of the woods, probably emerging from their winter nests under the leaves in old rodent burrows, hollow logs, grass clumps. We even found bumble bee queens in the bottom of the barn, where they made little nests in the gravel! Ever since we first grew pumpkins many years ago, we have had healthy populations of squash bees. They don’t emerge until late June/early July. We’re still waiting to see our first one this year.”

2. Adapt existing farm and land management practices to avoid causing undue harm to the bees already present.

“We use no chemicals. When the health of a plant is in jeopardy, we use OMRI-approved insecticides on a very limited and infrequent basis: Dipel (bacillus thuringiensis) to control caterpillars in brassica crops and Sluggo (iron phosphate) on rhubarb and lettuce for slugs and snails. We use insect netting to minimize insect pressure on squash, cucumbers, kale, onions, and blueberries because, through experience, we know those crops are particularly vulnerable. (squash vine borers, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, allium leaf miners, scarab beetles). The blueberry netting also keeps the birds out during harvest season and is much kinder to birds than traditional bird netting, and it’s also much more expensive.

Our cultivated areas are surrounded by untilled buffers of grasses and “weeds” that are occasionally mowed. These provide areas for pollinator nests and forage.

We are gradually working on establishing a framework of permanent raised beds for most of our vegetable crops. This dramatically reduces the need for tillage, builds soil organic matter, and allows ground nesting bees such as squash bees to nest undisturbed close to their food plants. Our no-till, mulched asparagus field is a long-term planting (15 years we hope) that is a major hangout place for many insects, from the baby spiders in the spring to the bees that feed on its flowers come July and August.

We plan our vegetable beds based on crop rotation guidelines for plant and soil heath, and we also strive for a diverse landscape. Flowering crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and melons are spread out in both the upper and lower growing areas. This provides food sources for pollinators in multiple areas and seasons and helps deflect problem insects.

We intersperse fun garden plants in the vegetable beds. They provide flower food for pollinators, herbs and flowers for us, and beauty for the soul. (The calendula/borage bed made me smile while picking peas.) The comfrey plants in the blueberries (and new divisions at the end of the blackberries) provide food for pollinators, diversify the landscape, and provide healing herbs!

We are gradually converting hay fields with hydric soils not appropriate for cropping to natural areas. In November 2019 we worked with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to plant 1,000+ native trees and shrubs in five acres of hay fields on either side of the stream. This planting expanded the protection the existing woods provide for this Big Elk Creek headwaters stream, and it also expanded the habitat for wildlife, specifically insects and birds (and deer!). Beyond this 150’ riparian buffer we are planning to convert another layer of hay fields to meadows of native plants.

The remaining hay fields are maintained as long term fields (4-5 years). One field a year is terminated through tillage, then goes through a fallow period of various cover crops for 1-2 years before again returning to hay. These long term rotations before tillage allow insects to have homes and fields without disturbance, and when it is disturbed, they have another field next door where they can move in! Most of these fields are alfalfa grass mixtures. The alfalfa flowers are an excellent food source for pollinators.”

3. Provide habitat for native bees on and around the farm.

“In addition to the uncultivated perimeters, permanent raised beds, conversion of hay fields to riparian buffers and meadows, and rotating hay fields, below are other ways we provide habitat:

  • Create “Pollinator Pasture” – The old asparagus field (0.6 acres) needed to be tilled to suppress perennial dock which got too strong over 16 years. We just planted it with Summer Solar, a four-species cover crop mix of summer annuals: buckwheat, cowpeas (legume), sunflowers, and sun hemp (legume). This will build organic matter, increase nitrogen and provide food and shelter for pollinators and other insects and birds. We are also using this mix in several of the 50’ vegetable plots.
  • Allow crops to bolt when possible, giving insects sources for pollen and nectar.
  • Plant cover crops – When timing, weeds (and energy!) make it possible, we use cover crops on both a short- and long term basis in both 2-acre hay fields and 50’ vegetable beds. These covers build soil health and provide habitat.”

Swallow Hill is named for the countless swallows that make their home there, swooping through the fields as you walk. After a visit, it is evident that Elizabeth and Douglas are more than just farmers. They are observers, learners and caretakers of the land, providing healthy and delicious food for their human community by providing a welcoming home and food for the greater community of birds, bees, and bugs — above and below the soil.

We welcome you to learn more with farmers and community organizations working to protect pollinators in our local area by joining the Pollination Celebration at market this Friday. Find more details on this page and on Facebook.

Please note that Swallow Hill is not open to the public. Visit Elizabeth and Douglas at the KSQ Farmers Market every Friday from 3-6pm to enjoy their “fine produce home grown with love.”

* The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats.