In the Midwest of the United States, row crops and cattle ranches are a common sight. What was once lush prairie grassland, populated with bison, is now awash with farms growing corn and soy beans. “Its very unusual now to see whole sections of grassland,” said Dr. Carter Johnson, one of the founding members of a EcoSun Prarie Farm, a project to bring back the native grasses.
Like his great-uncle before him, Dr. Carter thought that there must be a better way than relying on chemicals and machinery. So he decided to go back to the land, “I guess you could say, it’s in my blood.”
In 2007, along with 3 other collaborators, they leased a 640-acre corn and soy bean farm in South Dakota and began work converting back to prairie grasslands; planting native grasses, and restoring wetland and marsh areas.
“In this area, we have some of the best soils and most productive land in the country, but farmers here are struggling to survive.”
The main goal was to put the prairie to work, returning the landscape to the tall grasses that once thrived, but also looking for a model that is economically sustainable. “Most people tend to think of prairies as a reserve, something to look at, or walk through, but they can also be profitable.” By diversifying their products, and managing the land in a way that benefits both the environment and the economy, EcoSun has become a fully operational farm. They harvest seed from their grasses for retail and research, produce cut grasses for feed and fiber, and raise cattle for meat.
“The hard part is earning a living, the easy part is caring for the environment. Most businesses are about the bottom line, and we can understand that. The environment always gets pushed to the sidelines in the interest of profit. Until it becomes a problem, at which point it must be attended to, usually at great expense.”
Our goal is to balance both aspects. We see ourselves as part of the sustainability movement because we adopt farming practices that build soil quality, provide climate protection via carbon storage in soil, improving surface and groundwater quality, and recover wildlife populations.”
They have seen marked improvement in the health and fertility of the soil, and interestingly an increase in the carbon content, which is about halfway restored to the original levels. There has also been a reduction of soil erosion and water loss. Wetland areas have been redeveloped, fostering habitats for frogs and insects, and the rare prairie birds have been returning.
“We’re improving the environment, and people have shown lots of interest in our project. Farmers who want to earn a living, that don’t want to grow subsidised crops anymore, are coming to us for advice and inspiration. This coming year we’re looking to start a company to help people convert their tillage farms into restored prairie.”
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