What lives in our backyards and the woods that blanket Columbia County? If we plant native species in the hedgerows that separate farm fields, will that attract insects and other animals that benefit vegetable production? How do human activities affect the creatures and plants in the County, and how can the general public engage with nature in a way that builds informed compassion for the Earth and all of her inhabitants?
Those are the kinds of questions that inspire Conrad Vispo, wildlife ecologist, and Claudia Knab-Vispo, ethnobotanist, in their work at the Farmscape Ecology Program.
Conrad grew up in Columbia County and studied Wildlife Ecology at Cornell University and Indiana State University. He always loved spending time outside, but reading Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat made him realize he could make a living out of his interest in animal ecology. Conrad studied for his PhD at the University of Wisconsin and there met his future wife Claudia Knab-Vispo.
Claudia, a German native, came to the United States to pursue her doctoral work in ecology. She said when it had been time to decide what studies to pursue, she knew she wanted to do something that involved being outside. “I had it narrowed down to a veterinarian, a farmer, or something,” she said. “I did a practicum in each and realized they were not for me, so then I pursued biology.”
As part of their graduate and post-graduate work, the Vispos were given the opportunity to work at a field station in Venezuela through the Wildlife Conservation Society. What started as one summer of field work turned into almost a decade as they continued to study Venezuelan wildlife, plants and their interactions with people for a Venezuelan educational non-profit.
In the early 2000s, Conrad and Claudia moved back to Columbia County to welcome their son Otter. At that time, Conrad began working as a buyer at Hawthorne Valley Farm Store, but both Conrad and Claudia had a desire to continue working in the ecology field. Conversations with Martin Ping, Hawthorne Valley Executive Director, and Steffen and Rachel Schneider, who lead Hawthorne Valley Farm for many years, presented them with an opportunity through discussing how to approach ecology on a farm.
“We hadn’t worked directly with agriculture before, but realized that our fields of wildlife ecology and ethnobotany—which both involve the interaction of people and nature—were related,” Conrad said. “We were coming from an era where there was a perception that agriculture and conservation were against each other. We don’t see it that way, and the program evolved from a desire to help farmers and non-farmers understand ecology’s role in the landscape.”
The Farmscape Ecology Program began in 2003 with a focus of conducting agroecological research in Columbia County in a way that would benefit farmers, landowners, and nature alike and capture the interest of the general public to create a more compassionate view of the landscape.
The program’s work is project based, so their day-to-day tasks vary with the season and year. Currently, they are engaged in four main projects: the writing of an Ecological and Cultural Field Guide to the Habitats of Columbia County, the Progress of the Seasons, Applied Farmscape Ecology Research, and the Experimental Creation of Beneficial On-farm Habitats, in collaboration with Xerces and NRCS. All these projects involve many hours in the field gathering samples, followed by time in the lab categorizing, labeling, digitizing materials, and writing articles and reports based on the data.
The program equally focuses on outreach via free nature walks through natural areas in Columbia County, a monthly Open House, and consulting work that could include partnering with other county organizations or creating an ecological description of a landowner’s property. They also guest teach ecology and phenology at local high schools, including Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School.
Through all their research, Conrad and Claudia focus on making their projects and finding accessible to a wide audience.
“We try to pick themes and approaches that excite people,” Conrad said. “Then we work to translate field data into interesting things that people can connect with.”
“Our hope is that our work helps people connect more to the creatures that inhabit their landscape and consider what land-use decisions mean for them,” Claudia said. “We want to encourage better land stewardship in our region.”
Conrad and Claudia are grateful for the paths that led them to Hawthorne Valley and the contributions their research is making to the county and local farming community.
“I appreciate every day the opportunity to work here in a place where land stewardship is in practice and nature and people are in good balance,” Claudia said.
Conrad added, “Being an ecologist on a working farm allows us to work directly with farmers, and perhaps together we can come up with approaches that might not have otherwise arisen.”
To learn more about the Farmscape Ecology Program and their research, please visit their website. You can also stop by the Hawthorne Valley Fall Festival on Oct 7 and speak with them at their information booth.