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

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles More

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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid