Last updated on 2014.06.18
Can you make a living growing grass? (Down, Larry, down!) Prairie and wetlands researcher and advocate Carter Johnson thinks so. In 2007, he and some fellow high-brain-power folks from SDSU started EcoSun Prairie Farms on a square-mile section of land south of Brookings. Johnson and company raise one crop on their 600 acres: native prairie grass, a cluster of plant species that we've eradicated from 99.5% of their pre-Manifest-Destiny prairie habitat.
EcoSun Prairie Farms' primary revenue comes from selling grass seed. They also cash in on livestock by selling hay for feed and raising some of their own grass-fed Hereford—Angus beef.
Now you may wonder how a farm can compete raising plain old grass when it could be cashing in on high corn and soybean prices. But remember: turning a profit isn't just about increasing income; it's also about decreasing expenses. According to Pete Carrels, who has moved from the Sierra Club to do marketing and outreach for EcoSun Prairie Farms, farming grass costs two thirds less than farming row crops. They had to pour on some herbicides at the start to get rid of weeds associated with the tillage farming for which the land was previoulsy used, but now, there are no chemical inputs. Spend less on chemicals and machinery and fuel, and you don't have to plant the ditches to cover your debts.
Naturally, raising grass benefits the prairie, not just the pocketbook. Farmer Dr. Johnson explains:
The minute you plant grass, the advantages begin to accrue.... Preventing soil erosion is a primary advantage. Tillage or even no-till have higher erosion rates than perennial grass farming, and this is especially true when you compare conventional tillage. There's less runoff on the grass farm, and that means the water stays on our land and moves through our plants, and it won't be running off and carrying soil into surface water. That also means soil fertility is protected, and so is surface water. Grass farming also protects groundwater because you use few or no fertilizers and biocides. Everything you look at that has any connection to the environment is better off with grass versus row crops. The main thing is that we're bringing the natural ecosystem back [Carter Johnson, quoted in Pete Carrels, "Planting Prairie for Profit," Dakotafire, 2012.07.09].
Turning a profit while restoring wetlands and native species sounds like a longer-lasting solution than draining every acre and planting fenceline to fenceline with single strains of corporate-owned and engineered seed.
If you'd like to see the future of sustainable farming firsthand, EcoSun Prairie Farms is hosting a tour on Friday, August 3, at 1 p.m. Carrels provides the following directions:
To find the farm from Interstate 29, take Exit 114, the Flandreau exit. Travel west on 230th Street for about 3.5 miles (2 miles past the junction with Highway 77) to 469th Avenue. Signs will direct you the remainder of the way. Parking areas will be marked.
If you want more info, give the farm a shout.