A handful of farmers in the James-town, RI, area are sacrificing forage quality to help songbirds.

They're being paid to delay their first hay cuttings or to forego grazing on one or two small fields each until bobolinks are done nesting.

“When farmers harvest or graze here in May or June, their machinery or animals destroy the bobolinks' nests, eggs and young. But if they wait until early July, the birds survive,” explains Stephen Swallow. He's a University of Rhode Island (URI) economist who works on the project with university colleagues and researchers from EcoAsset Markets, an environmental group in Providence.

While bobolinks are not on the endangered species list, they're much less plentiful than they used to be, says Swallow.

“Previous research in New York showed a strong link between when farmers cut their hay and bobolink populations,” he says. “Plus, they're very visible birds and are fun to watch and listen to and those benefits create a public good.”

The project is unique because locals donate to a fund used to pay participating farmers to help recoup lost yield and quality.

“This market approach is brand new,” says Emi Uchida, another URI economist. “The Jamestown residents and farmers experienced one of the first experiments in the world to use a market approach to enhance ecosystem services.”

The project began last year when several fields with nesting bobolinks were available for residents to invest in, each with a different pricing option. For example, one option asked potential investors to name the maximum amount they were willing to invest, and they were charged that amount. Another option asked the same question, but all investors in that field were charged a flat fee based on the average amount offered by all participants.

Nearly 200 folks invested from $5 to $200 each for a total of $9,800 or enough money to pay four farmers to put a total of six fields in the program. This year, three farmers were paid to delay harvesting or grazing on four fields. The fields averaged about 10 acres each and were predominately mixtures of grasses.

In both years, some money was refunded to residents who either paid more than was necessary for a given field or because not enough money was raised and the field was left out of the program. Swallow won't disclose the specific amount paid to the farmers, but says it was over $1,000 each.

“The contracts were negotiated based on the typical cost of feed they would need to replace the forage they weren't able to get from their own fields,” he says.

The project has garnered positive results. Some fields showed increases in the number of nests found and the number of males defending territories, says Swallow.

He and his colleagues will continue the project next year and may expand it. Initial funding to develop it was provided by URI's Ag Experiment Station and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.