Remaking Prairie, Re-greening Agriculture: Creating a Working Farm Growing Native Grass

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By Peter Carrels

Introduction

Time-lapse photos show how the grass heights on Prairie Farm changed over last summer. June 30, July 13, Aug. 5, Aug. 11. (Pete Carrels) Despite efforts by citizens, scientists and land stewardship organizations, America’s tallgrass prairie continues to disappear. Precious vestiges of the tallgrass ecosystem are now marooned in a landscape mostly mantled by monoculture.

Not only are we losing prairie, we’re losing our understanding of what prairie is. Anymore, the word “prairie” in mainstream usage refers not to an ecotype but a rural setting. Tourism promoters beckon our urban neighbors to visit the pastoral prairies of America’s heartland. The highway traveler looks out over a vast range of corn in very rural Nebraska and nostalgically coos to his wife: “There really is something special about the prairie.” The word has lost its ecological significance, its biological associations, and our misunderstandings about what is and what isn’t prairie makes it simpler for genuine prairie to be destroyed with little fanfare and regret.

The mindset that pursues industrial monoculture posing as sustainable agriculture defines our notions of what is and what isn’t appropriate for land use. Land left in grass is viewed as land not utilized to its fullest value. Grasslands in the tallgrass region that do survive or have been restored are treated as heirlooms. It’s as if they remind us of a time too long ago when farming was backwards and simple.

The Nuts and Bolts of a New Prairie Agriculture

“Backwards” is not the word Dr. Carter Johnson would use to describe the experimental prairie farm he and others are developing in southeastern South Dakota. Johnson, a distinguished professor of ecology at South Dakota State University, has embarked on a unique five-year plan to reintroduce native grasses to a large, working farm that formerly grew corn and soybeans. His plan does not emphasize the mere preservation and protection of these grasses but instead utilizes a thoughtful rhythm of restoration, growth, harvest and savvy marketing of native plants that just so happen to be gentler on the environment than row crops.

“This isn’t a nature preserve,” explained Johnson, as we hiked EcoSun Prairie Farm. “What we’re doing here is putting nature to work. We want to prove that a farmer can make a decent living by growing native grass. This is a real working farm with an on-site farm manager that grows grass instead of corn or soybeans. We’re conducting this experiment on a farm that was row-cropped and produced great yields.”

Places like this are typically off-limits to prairie restoration because growing corn or soybeans is the conventional approach to using the most fertile lands in the region. Restorations or preservation of indigenous vegetation are usually limited to marginal lands or they happen on small parcels. The rare prairie preserves that are of considerable size are treated like sanctuaries. What makes Johnson’s enterprise so unique and noteworthy is that it is a sizeable operation—640 acres—on premium land where native plants prospered before monoculture arrived. When the earliest settlers traveled through or homesteaded this part of Dakota Territory, they reported grasses taller than a man and too thick to move through. That’s the natural bounty Carter Johnson plans to tap.

Johnson and a group of colleagues at South Dakota State University cooked up their fantasy farm over long discussions about how to balance economic and environmental values in agriculture. They dreamed about tallgrass reborn in the area near South Dakota State University that lies on the western edge of the historic tallgrass region. In this corner of South Dakota, with excellent soils and ample rainfall, corn yields typically rank near the highest in the state.

As a youngster, Johnson had watched his great uncle switch his eastern South Dakota farm from cultivated crops to cattle and grass. “He did it because of economics, and he made it work. He grassed down all his fields and became a successful cattleman,” Johnson recalled. “I felt we could do something similar, but with more than cattle.”

With his grandfather as inspiration Johnson launched Prairie Farm, and he and his colleagues imposed a five-year deadline to prove the commercial viability of this vision. It is, Johnson emphasizes, a reasonable timeline in the perfect place to conduct such an ambitious experiment.

“Instead of a flat, homogeneous farm,” he explained, “this property has varied topography, different types of soils, and also drained, restorable wetlands and wet ground. There are opportunities here to grow different grasses under lots of different conditions.”

Transforming a square mile of hardcore monoculture on fertile land in southeastern South Dakota to a working farm oriented around the growing of native plants is no simple matter. It breaks the mold. It confounds proponents of status quo agricultural strategies.

The land at Prairie Farm had been routinely cultivated and treated with weed poisons and fertilizers. The restoration process followed by Johnson and his associates requires careful practices, study and calculated tactics. Burns were employed on some parts of the property. Small amounts of herbicides were utilized to initially clear off some vegetation on other fields, but the plan is to avoid using fertilizers and poisons at Prairie Farm. Some seeds were drilled and some were spread, depending on circumstances and conditions. Harvest practices involve traditional machinery, and cutting occurs once in late summer, when biomass is at or near its peak. “When you harvest,” said Johnson, “depends on what the grass will be used for. Biofuel purposes need maximum mass, while hay for animals dictates we cut it just before peak mass, so the forage quality is better.”

Establishing the prairie also required patience. Perennials don’t grow much above the ground in their first year or so, preferring and needing to expend precious energy establishing study root systems. “We struggled with the look of the place that first year,” remembered Johnson. “It looked a bit ragged while those first fields established themselves, and the weeds were taller than the grass.” But most of the weeds are annuals, Johnson explained, and in the second year when the grasses started taking off, they began to overtake the weeds. These days, after three years of care and management, the grassy landscape looks lush, fruitful.

On our visit to the farm last summer we were unexpectedly joined by Dr. Arvid Boe, Johnson’s colleague from South Dakota State University and vice-chairman of Prairie Farm. Boe, a researcher and professor of grass breeding and genetics, said he had come to the farm that afternoon to study its progress as well as enjoy the beauty of the new prairie. But it’s obviously difficult for either man not to become preoccupied with the prodigious growth so visible on the third year of their work on this farm. “Think we’ll make five tons per acre in this field?” asked Johnson, as Boe bent over and gently rubbed a prairie mainstay called big bluestem. Boe looked up, nodded and grinned. “If not, we’ll get close. This is really impressive, outstanding growth.”

Fields around us were dense with black-eyed Susan, Indian grass, big and little bluestem, prairie cordgrass, switchgrass and dozens of other native plants. The sun was dipping toward the horizon after a hot, humid afternoon, and a moist heat and pungent aroma seemed to rise off the heavy vegetation. Dragonflies darted about everywhere. Birdsong and the buzzing of insects was almost deafening. Ducks moved from one restored wetland to another. Frogs croaked, a heron squawked, a steady commotion of living sounds surrounded us. I looked up at fleecy, pink clouds and then shifted my gaze downward to the mat of green stretching out on all sides. This land, this prairie, felt wild.

As Johnson and I walked across the low, spongy ground of a wet meadow growing grasses taller than we were, Johnson recited a list of environmental advantages enjoyed by farm-scale grassland agriculture.

“The minute you plant grass the advantages begin to accrue,” explained Johnson. “Preventing soil erosion is a primary advantage. Our policy is no net loss of soil, period. Tillage or even no-till have higher erosion rates than grass farming, and this is especially true when you compare conventional tillage. There’s less runoff, and that means the water stays on our land and moves through our plants, and it won’t be running off and carrying soil into surface water. That also means soil fertility is protected, and so is surface water. Grass farming also protects groundwater because you don’t use fertilizers and biocides. At Prairie Farm only farming practices that increase soil carbon stocks will be used, and that means we will reduce the threat of global warming. Everything you look at that has any connection to the environment is better off with grass versus row crops. I can’t see any downside from an environmental perspective for a grass farm like Prairie Farm. The main thing is that we’re bringing the natural ecosystem back.”

Restoring the property’s 40 wetlands is a goal that complements the pursuit of tallgrass prairie at Prairie Farm. According to Johnson, “Nearly all of our wetlands are the right type for this farm. They’re shallow, so by the end of summer in most years we’ll be able to harvest grasses from the wetlands. The main reason we lost so many wetlands in eastern South Dakota was the urge to spread corn over the topography. Corn growing and wetlands are not compatible. But grass growing is very compatible with certain types of wetlands.”

Johnson explained that some wetland grasses, most notably cordgrass, can annually yield 10 tons of biomass per acre, which exceeds corn and even switchgrass on drier uplands. “It’s sometimes difficult to establish grasses in wet conditions,” he added, “but we’re working on that.”

The bigger questions, said Johnson, are the economic ones. “We’re not sure if the economics of this place will be better than corn farming, or a lot better or a little better. We want to demonstrate that a farmer doesn’t need easements, CRP and price supports. We want to prove that a farmer can make a living with grass. At this juncture it appears we can make more money per acre than corn farming, but you’ve got to be very entrepreneurial to make a grass farm work. We have numerous income streams, just like traditional farms did. Selling our grass for specialty hays, for grass-fed beef and for horse feed are good markets for us. Another is the seed market, and we’re producing high-quality seed, so that’s proving to be lucrative. Identifying emerging markets and expanding markets is essential.”

A major financial boost to the project is coming from the Sun Grant Research Center, a Department of Energy research funding organization at South Dakota State University that has a special interest in cellulosic ethanol and biofuels. “They view our farm as a good place to evaluate how different grasses grow in different mixtures, in different sites and on different soils,” said Johnson. “They are interested in grasses as a feedstock for fuel. They also like the fact that we’re performing our experiments with grasses and productivity on farm scale rather than on small plots.”

Although the farming operation has not yet sold any grasses for biofuels, Johnson is confident it is just a matter of time before that market opens up. Switchgrass, Johnson noted, is of special interest to those wanting to develop cellulosic ethanol. “In terms of providing biomass,” he said, “switchgrass can’t be beat.” Prairie Farm grows three varieties of switchgrass in a variety of conditions. But that’s only the tip of what is happening regarding their biofuels and other grass-growing projects and research.

Johnson ran off a menu of different projects. “On several fields we’re mixing warm and cool season grasses together. But we want warm season grasses to prevail on some fields, and we’re managing for that. We’re growing a dozen warm season grasses together on a ‘big field’ scale. On one 100-acre field we have a 35-species mix. We’re going to spread 100 different species on another field. We paired up Indian grass with bluestem on another. We’re experimenting on the wetlands. We’ve companioned cup plant with cordgrass and switchgrass on wet ground.” We’re trying other approaches elsewhere. We are experimenting, monitoring results, looking to maximize productivity without jeopardizing our environmental gains.”

Originally, the 650-acre farm had about 400 acres planted to corn or soybeans. “Our goal,” said Johnson, “is to have those 400 acres growing grass by 2011.” As year three concludes, nearly 300 acres have been successfully converted to grass.

Are there farmers interested in growing grasses as opposed to conventional row crops?

Conversations with farmers have made Johnson optimistic. “The highly mechanized type of farming that uses lots of chemicals doesn’t appeal to every farmer. We feel there is a progressive movement interested in a more sustainable, more ecologically friendly agriculture. Some people are asking for it. Some are demanding it. Plus, the profit margins for conventional crops like corn are often low on a per-acre basis, although recently grain prices did shoot up. Smaller operators, especially, are looking for ways to make more money per acre. We think our system can do that, and that will make it possible to make a good living on a smaller farm.”

This style of farming, Johnson repeatedly emphasized, relies on a healthy ecosystem rather than subduing natural conditions. “We are seeking a balance between earning profits and environmental protection,” Johnson pointed out. “It’s harder to put a monetary value on the environmental benefits, but we fully understand that having a healthy environment is good not only for the farm and its productivity but for many other aspects of the overall ecosystem. Protecting surface water downstream of the farm doesn’t necessarily put money in the farmer’s pocket, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Johnson, Boe and the others involved in steering decisions at Prairie Farm are optimistic heading into year four of the experiment. While they continue to make big-picture decisions that keep their farm on the environmentally progressive edge of modern-day agricultural pursuits, they also closely watch an economic bottom line that thus far looks promising. Their idea seems ideal as hypoxia pockets intensify and expand at the mouths of major rivers and as tallgrass prairie disappears.

For additional information about Prairie Farm, visit www.ecosunprairiefarms.org/farm.html.

 

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