It is late summer and bees drift through pale purple cosmos and yellow goldenrod in the wildflower meadow at Wye Farm, their bodies laden with sacs of pollen. Tufts of bushy foxtail grass, heavy with seeds, bend low. Butterflies hover over scarlet bee balm, then scatter further into the field.
Since Anne Habberton and Jon Shaw turned about 30 acres of farmland into a meadow of native wildflowers this year, they have seen new insects and birds arrive at their Queenstown property. A yellow-headed bobolink flashes across the field. Indigo buntings, the color of a cloudless sky, swoop over the wildflowers. Swallows spin through the air, startling insects into their open beaks.
“We’ve already been getting more species and in greater numbers than ever before,” said Shaw, 65. “We’ve had more butterflies than we have ever had before.”
The couple has spent two decades filling Wye Farm, which has belonged to Habberton’s family since the late 1700s, with delights. Shaw, an artist, has converted a barn to a studio, and covered it with his oil paintings. He has planted more than 100 trees, including pawpaws, which drop their green, heavily-scented fruit at this time of year, and chestnuts. He has installed scores of nesting boxes for wrens, bluebirds and tree swallows. Several falcons and hawks perch in lofty cages, waiting for their chance to hunt with Shaw. Paso Fino horses, which Shaw has trained to play soccer, graze in a meadow.
Habberton, 72, grew up in Washington, D.C., but often visited her grandmother at Wye Farm. She and Shaw were married on a brick patio behind the historic white house in 1999 and moved in three years later. They hired a farmer — whose father and grandfather previously farmed this same land — to manage the 450-acre property in accordance with the latest modern farming techniques. The land produces feed corn, soybeans and wheat, like many Eastern Shore farms. More than a dozen years ago, they arranged for the farm to be preserved from development in perpetuity through the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.
“I’m forever grateful to our grandfather for keeping the farm in the family, and to our mother for instilling in us love, respect and appreciation of the farm,” said Habberton, a retired nonprofit worker. “We recognize it’s a huge privilege and responsibility to be the stewards of this land.”
A little over two years ago, at the start of the pandemic, Habberton was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple began to rethink the way they used their land — and their time.
They reached out to Washington College’s Natural Lands Project, and with the help of its director, Dan Small, began converting a portion of their property into a meadow of native wildflowers and grasses.
“I wanted to put in a wildflower barrier between the crops and our home,” said Shaw, explaining that he hoped to protect his wife from the pesticides and herbicides applied to farmland. Last year, he walked 7 1/2 miles, sowing wildflower seeds in a wide horseshoe around their home.
This year, with the support of Small and Washington College, the couple sowed native wildflowers and grasses across a former cornfield. Small helped them apply for and receive funding through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and the state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which help offset the cost of losing the profits from farming.
“There are a lot of people who want to make a difference and don’t know how,” Small said. “This is one way to do that.”
Since the inception of Washington College’s Natural Lands Project in 2015, Small said he and his team have worked with 65 Eastern Shore landowners and converted 1,200 acres of farmland into wildflower meadows. They have also helped people restore wetlands that had once been used for agriculture. The program provides seeds for a dozen native species of wildflowers and three native grasses, all but one of which are perennials. Workers sow the seeds and check back throughout the season. In return, landowners pledge to maintain the land as a wildflower meadow for a decade, removing noxious invasive species and periodically mowing to prevent the land from becoming forest.
“The shore has changed a lot over the centuries,” Shaw said. Prior to World War II, much of the land was divided into small farms separated by hedgerows and stands of trees, prime habitats for birds, insects and other small creatures. The birth of large-scale farm equipment and greater use of herbicides eliminated many of the leafy, overgrown spaces in which native animals dwell. “Instead of having diverse farming across small acres, we have these monocultures without weedy edges,” he said.
Kristin Junkin — director of operations at ShoreRivers, a nonprofit that works to protect and restore Eastern Shore waterways — was the first person to suggest that Habberton and Shaw join Washington College’s Natural Lands Project. Wildflower meadows, buffer zones and restored wetlands play a key role in preventing pollutants from reaching the Chesapeake Bay, she said.
“They soak up nutrients that run off agricultural lands and reduce the amount of the nutrients and sediments flowing into our rivers and our bay,” Junkin said.
While Eastern Shore landowners want to protect the Bay, Small says for many the biggest draw of the land preservation program is that it attracts quail. “People here have a connection to quail,” Small said. “They grew up hearing and seeing them.”
Many of the same features that attract quail also attract other native species. “If you have quail on your farm, you have a balanced, healthy landscape,” he said. Devoting a portion of a farm to a wildflower meadow reduces the amount of fertilizers and sediment, and, while farmers still need to spray some herbicides to control invasive species or trees, they use far less than they would to grow crops.
“Hundreds and hundreds of species of pollinators are going to benefit,” Small said. “Butterflies, bees, hundreds of microscopic organisms. And the birds are going to benefit from those additional species of insects.”
Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, said the work Habberton and Shaw have done at Wye Farm is inspiring — not just for other large landowners, but for everyone. “The good news is everyone can do this, whether you have a large farm or just a small backyard. Everyone can participate to help pollinators and we must,” he said. “The future of the planet is in our hands.”
For Habberton and Shaw, the acres of wildflowers have deepened their bond with the land. Shaw installed benches throughout paths along the meadow so that Habberton could stop and rest while she was recovering from breast cancer treatments. “Some days, I may not feel like walking, but I want to see what’s going on,” she said. “I go out to see the asters, but I wind up walking for an hour.”