Land for bees: Whitewater woman donates farm to Michael Fields Institute

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Friday, October 25, 2013

WHITEWATER—Betty Refior is worried about honeybees. 

And when Betty Refior is worried, she takes action.

Earlier this month, Refior, 91, donated 226 acres of Indiana farmland to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy

“I'm up in years, and I wanted to have that farm certified organic in my lifetime,” Refior said.

Michael Fields is a public, non-profit learning center devoted to organic and biodynamic agriculture. It uses a mix of education, research and practical assistance to showcase how farming can be economically viable without using intensive amounts of chemicals.

Refior, 91, is a former farmer who moved to Whitewater in the 1990s.

“When I came here in 1994, there were lots of honeybees all around Whitewater,” Refior said. “Not any more.”

In September 2011, Refior attended a workshop at Michael Fields and noticed the abundance of honeybees there.

Refior believes herbicide and pesticide use has contributed to the decline of the honeybee population.

She's not the only one. The United States Department of Agriculture has linked the decline of bees and other pollinators to habitat loss, disease, parasites and environmental contaminants.

“Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators….” according to the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Refior was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, and she has been attending a variety of whole farm workshops at Michael Fields, said David Andrews, executive director of the institute.

 “It's really quite a gift,” said Andrews. “I think it's the first time in our 29- year history that someone has given us a farm.”

The farm, which has been in the Refior family for 126 years, includes cropland, 20 acres of established woodland, some farm buildings and a small home.

The farm will be used to showcase cropland and forest management during its three-year transition from conventional farming to organic certification, according to a news release about the gift.

In order for land to be certified organic, it must be free from chemicals for three years. The land could be used in a variety of ways in that time, Andrews explained.

Another option would involve studying transition methods from conventional to organic. For example, planting winter wheat and then soybeans on top of the unharvested wheat in the spring. Yet another option would include putting in hay for three years.

Whatever the decision, institute staff or the farmer working the land would be responsible for reporting on the success and challenges of the method in question.

“Since Betty is interested in bees, one of the things we're looking into is the USDA's pollinator program,” Andrews said.

The program encourages farmers to plant grasses that bloom in the spring, summer and fall, supporting the local honeybee population.

The farm is located in Miami County in central Indiana, about four hours from East Troy.

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