News / USA

    Living Off the Land, Naturally

    Experimental "prairie farm" designed to prove farmers can make a living off native grasses

    EcoSun Prairie Farm is intended to be a working model of agricultural and ecological sustainability
    EcoSun Prairie Farm is intended to be a working model of agricultural and ecological sustainability

    From the air, South Dakota looks like a patchwork quilt, as if someone neatly sectioned off the landscape with square and rectangular cookie cutters. This is corn and soybean country. So finding a 260 hectare plot of grass, called EcoSun Prairie Farm, on prime South Dakota farmland is very unusual.

    Ecologist Carter Johnson of South Dakota State University admits that some people think EcoSun is a crazy idea, but adds optimistically, "Others think maybe these guys got something, maybe that's a good idea. The proof is in the pudding," he points out with a laugh, "and hopefully we'll produce some pudding one day and have some good results."

    Eventually, he'd like to see prairie farms spring up all over eastern South Dakota to grow the state's native plants.

    Successful farms don't have to harm the environment

    The EcoSun Prairie Farm – seen here before being restored with native grasses – was an active corn and soybean farm for more than a century
    The EcoSun Prairie Farm – seen here before being restored with native grasses – was an active corn and soybean farm for more than a century

    Agriculture is an important part of the economy in the American Midwest. But intensive farming practices can be detrimental to the environment and measures to prevent or reduce pollution are often costly to farmers. Johnson thinks there's a better way, and this project is designed to prove it.

    The ecologist's test fields are covered by two-meter tall switchgrass, cordgrass and blue stem grass which are mixed with wildflowers. The mix is as diverse as the revenue opportunities he expects they'll provide.

    He gently tugs some seeds off the tip of switchgrass. Seeds like these are one income stream. Prairie grass is also selling well as livestock feed. This year, Johnson will add cattle to the landscape to raise grass-fed beef.

    Since the fields here are not plowed, carbon held in the soil is not disturbed and released into the air. Some environmentalists suggest farmers should be paid to store the greenhouse gas in their fields, to offset emissions from industry and cars.

    And if cellulose-based ethanol fuel becomes economically viable, that would also be a market the prairie farm could enter.

    A win-win proposition

    Plugs of native cordgrass, waiting to be planted
    Plugs of native cordgrass, waiting to be planted

    "It's a different way to look at grass than planting it and letting it sit," Johnson says. "Let's plant it and put it to work. And make some money off it, while we're also benefiting the environment. Sounds like a win, win deal to me."

    Capital investment is much lower here, than on a traditional farm because there's no need for costly equipment like tractors and combines - or fuel to run them.  To sum up the environmental benefits: more carbon is held in the ground, runoff from the fields is reduced and what's grown here can be used for renewable fuels.

    Using prairie grasses to repair damaged wetlands

    Ducks and other waterfowl have returned to the restored wetland
    Ducks and other waterfowl have returned to the restored wetland

    Some of the plants, such as cordgrass, can also help restore wetlands. Boggy marshes protect and improve water quality, provide fish and wildlife habitats and reduce flood risk.   But boggy marshes have been shrinking due to climate change and the practice of draining them to increase the amount of crop land. The seeds from prairie cord grass can be sold to replant wetlands, re-establishing an important habitat for birds, insects, plants and other prairie creatures.

    Waiting for the pudding

    At a typical South Dakota corn and soybean farm, second-generation crop farmer Larry Birgen likes the idea of being more environmentally friendly, and not needing costly equipment like combines. But before Birgen converts any of his prime crop land, he says he needs to know that prairie farms can make money. "If they get to the point where they can show it's economically feasible, I would definitely consider it," Birgen says.

    Johnson hopes to get to that point in a few years, showing that a prairie grass farm is a money maker, without government subsidies and inspiring farmers to find creative ways to put environmental stewardship on a par with economic needs.

    You May Like

    Republicans Struggle With Reality of Trump Nomination

    Despite calls for unity by presumptive presidential nominee, analysts see inevitable fragmentation of party ahead of November election and beyond

    Despite Cease-fire, Myanmar Landmine Scourge Goes Unaddressed

    Myanmar has third-highest mine casualty rate in the world, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which says between 1999 to 2014 it recorded 3,745 casualties, 396 of whom died

    Video Energy Lacking at Annual Offshore Oil Conference

    The slump in oil prices that began in 2014 has taken a toll on the industry but all express confidence it will end eventually

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limitedi
    X
    Katie Arnold
    May 04, 2016 12:31 PM
    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora