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Farmers and Their Stories - Bob Russell

Bob's Story

An appreciation for food and a great crop of homegrown basil is what brought Bob and Barbara Russell into the farming world.  After relocating to Sussex County in Delaware, the Russells grew Basil in their home garden and brought it to a chef at a local restaurant.  The chef loved the taste, color, and long shelf life of their basil compared to the herbs they were currently supplied with, and a professional relationship was born. 
There are no managed pollinators on the Russell’s farm.  All of the pollination services are provided by wild native bees and other pollinating insects.  For 27 years the Russells have run a custom growing operation that supplies vegetables, herbs, and microgreens to area restaurants.  The land they have been farming for the past 16 years was chosen for its proximity to markets, its good soil, and its good growing conditions.  Vegetables and herbs are grown in a three acre field on the property, and several smaller beds near the house are planted in edible and cut flowers.    
The Russells had managed several hives of honeybees on their property to assist with pollination, but after several seasons of dead hives they were not replaced.  When they saw that there were no pollination problems the following year without the hives- they began to take notice of the native pollinating insects. 
Many of the vegetables they grow are pollinator dependent.  These include squashes harvested small, a large variety of tomatoes, peppers that range from mild to the hot habanero, and eggplants that vary in color from the traditional purple to a reddish color with white stripes.  In addition, the Russells grow perennial and annual herbs that are attractive to the pollinators.  Chives provide forage for pollinators in May, Garlic provides forage in August, and lavender, sage, thyme, and basil are attractive throughout the growing season.  Non pollinator dependent crop such as microgreens, baby lettuces, and mustards are also grown on the farm.

Becoming Aware of Native Pollinators

The Russells are motivated to promote pollinators to enhance the quality and quantity of crops on their farm and to increase the general pollinator population in the surrounding areas.  With the introduction of varroa mite and the trouble they encountered when raising honey bees the Russells became aware of the importance of native pollinators.  This lead the Russells to become involved in a Native Pollinators in Agriculture project with the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) the Russells were introduced to the native bees in their crops.  For example, the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa), pollinates the squash grown on the farm, and must be gently shaken out of the blossoms when they squash are harvested for market.   These bees are pleasant to be around remarks Bob, as he is often surrounded by them and other native bees when working in the field.
Subconsciously the Russells have been using pollinator friendly practices for years but did not realize what a resource they had.  After a DDA survey of their farm they discovered that there were 99 species of native bees from the over 2300 specimens collected on their farm.  The Russells use a display box of their bees to promote the use of native pollinators to their visitors.

This year the Russells added a high tunnel greenhouse to extend the growing season.  Pollinators are able to access the plants by traveling through the open sides and so far this year they have had no pollination problems.


Promoting pollinators is “part of the bargain” says Bob.  The Russells take a number of steps to cultivate pollinators on their farm.  They do not mow the edges of their fields and leave these areas for wildflowers all season long.  They employ organic pesticide methods, andwhile not certified organic pesticides are chosen carefully.   Zero-day re-entry pesticides are used and the Russells compare labels, and choose a product that is non-toxic or less toxic to pollinators.  In addition, all pesticide applications are made just before dark when pollinators are not present in the field. 

Habitat and Forage Provisions

They make sure there is a high diversity of plants that provide pollen and nectar all season long for pollinators.   They initially began to have successional plantings to provide enough produce to fill orders throughout the season but found that it also provides forage for pollinators.  They plant five successional plantings of squash for example, which provides forage for the squash bee and other important pollinators on their farm, over the season.
The Russells maintain 25 acres of woods that provide habitat for cavity and ground nesting bees.  Dead trees or snags are left standing for cavity nesting bees.  The Russells found that things that provide habitat can be a surprise.  Bamboo poles used on the farm were left in storage once a beneficial wasp was found nesting in them.

Inexpensive and Simple Changes- A New Mindset

The sometimes easy and subtle changes the Russells have made on their farm have proved to be successful with little labor or expense.  Since many of the pollinator friendly practices were put into place the Russells have seen an improvement in the pollinator populations.  There is always lots of pollinator activity occurring in the field.  The most visible pollinators are bumble bees, butterflies, syrphid flies, and wasps.  In addition, even though they are close to a marsh area their mosquito population is lower than surrounding areas.  This demonstrates what Bob believes in, that when you encourage pollinators you encourage other benefits and help the entire ecosystem.
The changes they have undertaken have worked well but Bob admits that it took an initial mind shift to get started.  For example, like most farmers, Bob saw clean edges around his field beautiful but when he gave up mowing the edges he began to find beauty in the wildflowers and grass edges. 
In the future the Russells want to find out if they are deficient in any other beneficial insect species and if so, how to encourage the success of these species on their property.  They also plan on adding more nesting blocks for cavity nesting bees.

Be a Diplomat for Pollinators

Visitors to the farm, chefs and various garden groups, are shown the beneficial pollinator practices in place.  Bob gives talks to groups such as the Virginia small farm conference and the Mid-Atlantic Marketing Association on sustainable and pollinator friendly farming.
Chefs are encouraged to come to the farm as an effective way to market produce and educate them about pollinator friendly farming.   The Chefs rarely leave the farm without getting excited about a new crop and seeing how native bees help to provide the bountiful harvest.  Bob says the Chef’s often stay and cook with him, an additional benefit.  Although the demand for their produce is higher than they can meet, the Russells have remained small scale so that they can handle the work load themselves and continue to provide the best available produce. 






The Russells Top Three Recommendations

The Russells recommend three successful practices from their farm.  These are to not mow field edges and allow wildflowers to flourish as a pollinator food source; to keep forest land pristine for pollinator habitat, and to allow the ecosystem to remain in balance by supporting all beneficial insects including pollinators, predators, and parasitoids that keep pest populations in check.

Postscript by the Author

Upon completion of this profile I was informed that Bob Russell had passed away.  In addition to farming, Bob loved to travel, cook, hike, and connect with family and friends.  I will forever remember Bob, not just for his respect and love of pollinators, but for his amazing energy and love of life that was obvious every time I visited.  Barbara is now taking the reins at the farm, and I know Bob would be proud.


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