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

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines 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.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid