Restoring prairie connects farming's roots

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Visitors take in the restored prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Visitors take in the restored prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

As I’ve learned my way around central Iowa over the past year, reporting for Harvest Public Media, I’ve noticed sporadic patches of prairie. When I moved here, I had romanticized images of prairie in mind—well, okay, maybe it’s more accurate to say Hollywood images. Remember those tall grasses Laura and Mary ran through on the endless reruns of “Little House on the Prairie”? The TV shots practically stamped out the pictures I’d formed in my head when I read the series. Similarly, though over a longer period of time, agriculture has done a pretty comprehensive job of pushing native prairie off the Iowa landscape.

But it’s not all gone. A small sign on the bike path behind the high school in Ames announces that prairie is being reconstructed in that area. I see similar signs in many places. And on Interstate 35 between Mason City and Ames there’s a pull-off with no traditional rest area services but a big, albeit somewhat dilapidated, sign that says “Skunk River Valley Prairie Remnant.”

Amy Yoakum, a natural resource specialist with Story County Conservation, said the roadside prairie had been long neglected and maligned by travelers as a ridiculous pull-out, strewn with cedar trees and devoid of even a pit toilet—which led to, let’s just say, inappropriate uses of the trees.

“So I got a Living Roadway Trust Fund grant” from the Iowa Department of Transportation, Yoakum said, which allowed her to hire a team last fall to cut down and clear trees. The goal is to rid the prairie area of trees and scrub brush so the native grasses can once again flourish.

“It takes a while for the vegetation to respond,” Yoakum said. “It may take four years before the vegetation comes back to, hopefully, where it should be. You just have to be patient.”

Yoakum said across Story County her group manages about 475 acres of prairie in public parks.

Iowa State University ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore said people seem increasingly interested in these patches, which she said can support biodiversity.

“Iowans across the board are really in the process of re-connecting with our prairie past,” Schulte Moore said. Some people just like how it looks, others enjoy the bird watching. “We see it in the artwork with our state, too.”

Some landowners are recreating prairie, but most restoration happens on small plots of public land, including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa, where Schulte Moore and colleagues conducted the experiments I reported on here.

“I realized that we can do that and the information is useful, but these are all just going to be very small, postage stamps on the landscape, which is agricultural in character,” Schulte Moore said. “And our ability to manage those little postage stamps for resilience in the face of disturbances—maybe a new disease or climate change or a catastrophic fire or whatever—was very limited because they were always being threatened by this agriculture that surrounded them.”  

For Schulte Moore, one answer involved creating a framework for farmers to plant native grasses and flowering plants alongside their crops. At the same time, Yoakum has a hand in converting agricultural land back to prairie.

“A lot of the land we get used to be cornfields,” she said. Sometimes land is donated to Story County Conservation and on occasion the group is able to purchase land.  Either way, Yoakum said, when they take responsibility for a new tract of land they will try to reconstruct what they think it used to be. “We do a lot of prairie plantings in a lot of different places.”

Once the prairie is re-established, Yoakum said it’s important to manage it—otherwise you end up with a laughingstock of a highway pull out.

“We’re using fire and last year I started a prairie haying program,” Yoakum said, “just to kind of diversify our management.” Farmers can bid for the right to hay along state highways, which she said attracted much interest during the drought.

“People were really hurting last year for hay,” she said. They fed cattle hay they mowed from public highways.

When I started thinking about doing a story on the role of prairie in modern farming, I kept returning to the almost anachronistic idea of a little house on a vast prairie. These days, there are many big houses and very little prairie. But these projects suggest there is now some will to ensure the prairie never completely disappears—and a growing understanding of the connection between the fertile soil that created the nation’s bread basket and the tall grass prairie that came before.

“The agricultural productivity that Iowa's famous for,” said Schulte Moore, “is really a legacy of those past ecosystems.”

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