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
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population 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.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid