Last updated on 2014.08.27
Mike from Iowa asked for a close-up of bluestem grass. Can do, Mike!
Carter Johnson showed me this native grass and a whole lot more on his EcoSun Prairie Farm on a hot summer morning last week. I've written about Johnson's prairie farm and its philosophy before. The SDSU ecology professor gave a stirring speech on his vision for a working prairie at TedX Brookings last winter. But I wanted to see the Prairie Farm for myself.
In the basic prairie education department, Professor Johnson introduced me to his three main crops: bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass.
Very little of these three native, warm-season grasses grew on this farm before 2008. For seven summers, Johnson and his partners have been turning about 400 acres of former crop land to a rich mix of these native grasses. Another 100 acres, the wettest and roughest portions of the section, are untilled pasture. The owner leases another 100 acres for regular tillage, currently in corn.
The new grassland can't accurately be called "restored": Johnson explains that we don't have data on the exact mixture of grass species on the pre-homesteader prairie. So as we wade through the various mixes of grasses planted hither and yon in an effort to find what grows best in which parts of the field, we can't say for sure that we're seeing exactly what the pioneers saw when they first crossed the Big Sioux.
And don't call this grassland a preserve. Johnson isn't growing grass just for us to look at... although living prairie is a pleasure to behold. We're looking at a business, a farm enterprise making money on seed, hay, and grazing.
But the Prairie Farm business model turns traditional farming practices upside down. Consider that crop: grass. Go to a traditional farm, and you'll find grass relegated to the worst soil, the marginal places where it's too wet or rocky or sandy or otherwise unsuitable for corn or soybeans. Here Johnson plants grass in the best soil, and gets better grass than we're used to seeing in marginal crop land.
These native grasses are more suited to this land than any of the commodity crops we plant. Bluestem, for instance, sends roots down ten feet. Johnson says that during the 2012 drought, the grass here was tall and green. The native grasses are also perennials. Once the grasses take hold, the intense labor and worry of spring planting eases immensely. The grass farmer doesn't spend every spring tearing up the land, injecting it with chemicals, and hoping the snow is done and the rains are all gentle. Without much more human effort than a controlled burn, the grass just comes back. Instead of engineering the land to fit our preferred crops, the Prairie Farm picks a crop, native grasses, that fits the land.
Also different is the approach to water. Traditional crop farmers use tile and ditches to move water off their land as quickly as possible. They leave fields bare and black in the winter so snow blows across and away, leaving little to melt and muddy the fields in spring.
The Prairie Farm is speckled with wetlands. When it was cropped, these wetlands were drained by a network of ditches that carried water to a central pond and then off the property. That drainage was imperfect; wetlands still get wet, and crops planted on them often get soaked, stunted, and washed out before drainage can clear the "excess" moisture.
Instead of forcing usually wetland to support crops, the Prairie Farm philosophy says, why fight it? Johnson bermed those ditches so the water stays in those wetlands. Instead of wasting bluestem and switchgrass seed in those wet spots, Johnson lets the Indian cord grass, sedge, and Canada vetch grow as it naturally would. The bluestem and other prairie grasses come as close as they dare, competing with the wetland grasses in a "combat zone" that shifts with precipitation.
These wetlands serve the farm well, preserving useful moisture. But they also serve the public. Wetlands reduce reduce downstream flooding. They provide more waterfowl nesting habitat, which means more hunters can bag their limit in the fall. They act as snow breaks in the winter, keeping snow from blowing straight out to the county roads and highways.
Not different from traditional farming is the Prairie Farm's ultimate business goal: to make money. Johnson says switchgrass can yield $1,600 in gross income per acre on sales of seed and hay. Johnson says his switchgrass was competitive with corn at its recent peak of $7 to $8 per bushel; the business case is even better with corn now dropping below $4. Switchgrass gets no subsidies, but it also requires few of the costly inputs of planting, fertilizing, and killing bugs and weeds. Johnson and his partners spot-spray thistles, but thick sod supporting a couple dozen different species of grass and forbs does a pretty good job on its own of crowding out weeds.
The highest income can come from the wetlands. In those once-drained spots that produced the spottiest corn and beans, Johnson can now harvest wetlands seed that can sell for $75 per pound. That seed sells for wetlands restoration and construction mitigation.
The market for seed from wetlands and prairie grasses is shallow (though more farmers adopting Johnson's prairie farming model would deepen that market). The hay and grazing markets are plenty deep. The Prairie Farm is in its fourth year of grazing cattle, and Johnson says this is the best year yet. The farm currently hosts 74 Hereford-Angus cross heifers from the conservation-minded Mortenson ranch out by the Cheyenne River in Stanley County. Neighbors didn't think they could finish cattle on this grass, but Johnson says the herd finishes well here, coming out 95% lean.
Prairie Farm takes a portion of the herd to slaughter and market locally. Johnson says all of their beef sells, and they've never gotten complaints. His wife Janet (who accompanied us on the tour, and who happened to be my Russian prof back in the day) said the beef is delicious. Carter says the flavor, which he likens to sage, comes from the bluestem.
I ask ecology professor Johnson if the flavor assessment is based on rigorous scientific testing. Johnson says his operation is one of the few finishing cattle on native, warm-season grasses, which have a very different chemistry and photosynthesize differently from the cool-season grass on which most cattle finish. But then he says his explanation for that extra deliciousness is a "farmer's hunch."
The Prairie Farm could get a third big revenue stream from ethanol, if cellulosic ethanol took off. But a fair amount of cellulosic ethanol research focuses on engineering microbes to break down specific plant materials. That research leaves out mixed prairie grasses. Johnson says thermal processes for producing ethanol would be better for his business model. Johnson notes that all the fossil fuels we are using now come from the source he's growing now. Making fuel from harvested switchgrass and other prairie biomass would simply cut out the multi-million-year wait.
As with the wetlands, the entire prairie farm provides benefits that go beyond money in the farmer's pocket. Wildflowers abound in the prairie grass, providing great pollinator habitat. Insects like flowers and forbs, and pheasant chicks like flowers. So again, if you like shooting birds in the fall, you like prairie grass.
The working prairie offers multiple uses that monoculture cropland cannot. A cornfield has one use, industrial-scale production of corn. A cornfield has no public use. You can't picnic in it. You can't walk in it. You hear no birds in it. In the winter, the cornfield is bare. You find no habitat. You can't even ski there, as the snow blows away.
Eureka farmer and rancher Charlie Hoffman told me, "If you see a pasture with just one kind of grass, that pasture's dead." Carter Johnson might say the same thing about a farm where you see just one kind of crop, or a prairie with just one kind of farm. Johnson doesn't advocate turning the prairie entirely over to grass any more than he likes seeing South Dakota planted ditch to ditch with corn.
But Johnson's EcoSun Prairie Farm helps us see that a farm based on native grasses offers ecological health, public uses, and beauty that large-scale corn and bean farms cannot. Johnson's project shows that prairie farmers can provide all those benefits for their neighbors and still make a living off a prairie put to work.