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Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
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Prairie Strips Offer Glimmer of Hope


By Loni Kemp

Fri, Aug 8th, 2014
Posted in All Columnists

Water pollution from agriculture is all over the news these days. A half million people had their water turned off in Toledo, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie due to toxic water from algae blooms, largely caused by nutrients from fertilizers and manure building up in the smallest of the Great Lakes. It is the same issue in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by runoff from corn belt farms from Minnesota and on downstream.

Closer to home, the Star Tribune ran an extensive article documenting that a quarter of the area’s pastures and hayfields were converted to corn and soybeans in southeast Minnesota since 2007. By expanding row crops, farms are losing more fertilizer to rivers and groundwater. Experts predict that 45 percent of private wells will be contaminated, leadings to up to $12 million cost to homeowners for new wells and purification equipment. Will lower crop prices stop this unwise plowing up of grasslands?

But amidst these concerns, exciting developments at Iowa State University hold out hope that small changes in cropping could bring positive impacts to the environment. I share this information in hopes that farmers will adopt this change to how they farm.

Prairie conservation STRIPS (science-based trials of row-crops integrated with prairie strips) are proving that strategically converting as little as 10 percent of a corn or soybean field to perennial prairie patches can reduce total nutrient loss by 85-90 percent.

I had a chance to tour the research site in central Iowa last week, amid hundreds of square miles of corn and beans. The experiments were located on hilly fields, like many in Fillmore County.

These prairie strips are planted in narrow patches along one or two contours crosswise to the slope and at the bottom of slopes. The practice doesn’t look like much, but it makes a huge difference, because deep-rooted grasses and flowering plants slow surface runoff with their stiff stems, hold soil in place during heavy rains, increase infiltration of water and increase soil organic matter.

From 2007 to 2012, these crop fields were planted to prairie on only one-tenth of the field, yet they reduced soil movement off the the field by 95 percent. Total phosphorus loss was reduced by 90 percent. Total nitrogen export was reduced by 85 percent compared to losses from 100 percent row crop land.

The astonishing thing is that fields both with and without the prairie strips were under no-till. No-till is a highly recommended practice for reducing erosion to begin with, and yet the study proves that adding prairie strips was able to nearly eliminate erosion and polluted runoff. Results may be even better in fields that continue to use some tillage.

You might think that taking 10 percent of the field out of crop production would mean a ten percent loss in profits, but that is not the case. Another study by Iowa State’s Emily Eaton found that about 12 percent of every farm field produces very poorly, whether because it is on an eroded hilltop, a wet spot or a low-fertility area. Simply not planting at all on those low-producing pockets—and saving the cost of seed, tractor trips, fertilizer and herbicide—reliably increases net profits $10 per acre.

That’s right; eliminating planting on the poorest spots in a field makes the farmer more money.

Even better is taking the next step and planting prairie on those spots. It will cost from $24 to $35 an acre, but the Conservation Reserve Program can reduce the cost to farmers to about $5 to $7 per acre of planting.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. After seeing the chocolate brown water flowing in the Root River so many times this year, farmers have to be desperate for new ideas to save their soil and reduce those expensive fertilizers and herbicides.

Zucchini Fritters

3 1/2 cups zucchini

2 eggs

1/4 cup flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sunflower, peanut or olive oil for frying

Coarsely grate zucchini and then squeeze in a dish towel to remove excess water. Beat the eggs, then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Immediately heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a large frying pan. Drop in a small scoop for each fritter (pancake) and cook about three at a time for 2-3 minutes per side, until browned. Drain on paper towel and keep warm while you make remaining fritters. Serve with a spoonful of pepper jelly, caramelized onions or applesauce.

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