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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

by Rex Gogerty of Hubbard, IA

A once-endangered species, my private prairie, may hold the key to a new agricultural era.

Corn is no longer king in Iowa. It’s still our high-value crop; but even more traditional plants are now attracting attention among Corn Belt farmers. The new interest in old crops has been generated largely by the economy and the environment. A burdensome corn surplus, coupled with growing concern over groundwater pollution, has focused farmers’ attention on legumes and grass.

Alfalfa and oats, for example, have come back to the farm after being crowded out by corn-soybean Florida cropping rotations. This year 70 million acres nationwide are seeded to grass and legumes for periods of up to 10 years. Farmer compliance with these programs has given wildlife and soil conservation a much-needed boost. The forage revolution also has revived the use of many native prairie grasses. Switchgrass and bluestem are now plugging mid-summer pasture gaps for many profit-conscious beef producers. They are finding warm-season grasses provide lush pasture when brome and bluegrass wither under the July sun.

This comeback for grass farming has been like a prophecy fulfilled. Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” The prairie patch seemed to take up the best corn ground during the high-roller crop years. Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

The 4-acre field tucked away in the corner of the farm is a retreat and recreation area for the Gogertys as well as local prairie buffs of all ages. School groups find the mat of grama grass and coneflowers a surprising switch from the well-clipped turfs of parks and playgrounds. For them, it’s dramatic, intriguing and a bit scary. Indiangrass that is head-high on a seven year old has a rustle of history that makes it easy to paint word pictures of life on the land a century ago. Children have a good imagination anyway, and a few reminders of buffalo grazing from here to Montana and Texas generates images kids can’t get on television.

The prairie also is a popular stop for college students and other young people who are beginning to grasp the value of natural food production. Like a growing number of soil scientists, they are finding the self-enriching grassland is a showcase for low-input agriculture. Neighboring farmers now regard the virgin prairie as more than a marginal hay field. One reason is their concern about ground-water pollution from widespread use of agricultural chemicals. As one neighbor put it when he sank a probe into the pliable four feet of topsoil, “They’re just not making soil like that anymore; maybe we’d better take another look at how we’re handling the land.”

Prairie soil owes some of its productivity to abundant organic matter, a network of plant roots, and an army of earthworms. The soil is naturally aerated, fertile, and devoid of man-made pollutants. For farmers who are following a groundswell of natural agriculture, virgin prairie provides a technology touchstone, a chance to see the unblemished and unsurpassed food source.

Scientists say these prairie soils reveal microbial mysteries and suggest guidelines for non-chemical agriculture. Agronomists have discovered the sod mat serves as an excellent filter and dust catcher. The vigorous growth eliminates erosion and builds up organic matter. A 4-inch deep sod mat, for instance, may contain more than a ton of nitrogen per acre. Plant breeders are finding a surprising amount of disease and insect resistance as well as palatability and nutrition in some native grass species.

By far the biggest return from the prairie patch has been to the Gogerty family. Nephew Jack, who grows corn and soybeans up to the edge of the prairie plot, has become its informal overseer. He burns the heavy residue cover in early spring to discourage tree sprouts, and also to measure the rejuvenating effect of prairie fires that swept through the same fields when my great grandfather homesteaded here in the 1850s. Some scientists contend fire cleansed the mat and returned nitrogen and phosphorus in the form of ashes.

Jack also evaluates and identifies flowers and grasses as well as wildlife in the agricultural oasis. Last year he noted the constant presence of a doe and her twin fawn during the entire season. The mini-preserve also harbors a variety of smaller animals ranging from muskrats in two old buffalo wallows to increasing populations of pheasants, partridges, and other upland game birds. Rabbits, gophers, field mice, and other small species abound, while meadow lark and killdeer find a weatherproof nest in the luxuriant prairie mat. Finches and blackbirds find an equally sturdy shelter in willowy sunflowers.

The prairie is not only a refuge for wildlife and a laboratory for research, but a backyard retreat for my family. July and August are prime time for walking through the pristine world that is just a few steps from pampered rows of corn and soybeans. In comparison, the prairie appears unkempt, with a tangle of bluestem and Black-eyed Susans. But to a child, it is a head-high source of wonder and beauty. The switchgrass has a coarse texture, while thickspike gayfeather and prairie clover petals have a smell and feel unlike any found in gardens or parks.

Kids are less interested in the prairie’s botany than in its beauty and atmosphere. It requires some coaching, but a child soon learns the uniqueness of pitcher sage or prairie phlox. Almost every time one of my grandchildren and I walk to the prairie, we find a new flower or plant among the 200 or more species that thrive here. They range from the dramatic blazing star to the delicate dropseed. Discovering a new butterfly or songbird adds excitement to our hike, and catching sight of a fawn or young jackrabbit tops off any trip.

The prairie also is an ideal setting to recount stories of sod houses and prairie fires that were told to me by my grandfather. Prairie chickens and whooping cranes were here then. But many times the prairie needs no narration. In the still of a July evening, a child — or grownup with an active imagination — can hear the creak of Conestoga wagons or see the outline of grazing buffalo. A meager collection of arrowheads assures us that Indians once camped here and enjoyed the beauty and fragrance of purple cone flower.

There’s always a sense of nostalgia, of course. The prairie that once extended from horizon to horizon has been replaced by orderly fields and farmsteads. A productive environment that required 10,000 years to make has been turned under except for a few preserves. The good news is the revival of prairie culture. Bluestem switchgrass and other native species are being used to establish millions of acres of grazing land. Prairie enthusiasts can buy up to 200 different grass and flower species to seed their own native prairie.

A growing number of farmers and researchers are using the prairie as a pattern for farming with fewer chemicals. And most important of all, we are learning the value of this crop that once covered one-third of the country. And as for the Gogerty prairie patch… It will remain the exotic crop among newcomers such as corn, soybeans, and oats. I’m convinced the prairie laboratory is just beginning to reveal many invaluable secrets to lead us to natural and self-sustaining farming practices.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

How to Store Vegetables

Potatoes may be safely stored in bits on a well drained spot. Spread a layer of straw for the floor. Pile the potatoes in a long, rather than a round pile. Cover the pile with straw or hay a foot deep.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

by:
from issue:

In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

From humor-filled stories of a life of farming to incisive examinations of food safety, from magical moments of the re-enchantment of agriculture to the benches we would use for the sharpening of our tools, Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows offers a full meal of thought and reflection.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

by:
from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Old Man Farming

Spinning Ladders

You die off by passing away. You live on by passing on. I want to pass the culture of my life on slowly, over the ripening time of my best years.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing

Setting Up A Walking Plow

Here is a peek into the pages of Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing, written by SFJ editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

McCormick-Deering No 7 Mower Manual in English & French

McCormick-Deering No. 7 Mower Manual in English & French

Instructions for Setting Up and Operating the McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 VERTICAL LIFT TWO-HORSE MOWERS — Instructions pour le Montage et le Fonctionnement des FAUCHEUSES A DEUX CHEVAUX McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 À RELEVAGE VERTICAL

Haying With Horses

Haying With Horses

If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.

One Seed To Another: The New Small Farming

One Seed to Another

One Seed to Another is staggering and bracing in its truths and relevance. This is straight talk from a man whose every breath is poetry and whose heartbeat is directly plugged into farming as right livelihood.

Barbed Wire History and Varieties

Book Excerpt: The invention of barb wire was the most important event in the solution of the fence problem. The question of providing fencing material had become serious, even in the timbered portions of the country, while the great prairie region was almost wholly without resource, save the slow and expensive process of hedging. At this juncture came barb wire, which was at once seen to make a cheap, effective, and durable fence, rapidly built and easily moved.

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Don’t Eat the Seed Corn: Strategies & Prospects for Human Survival

by:
from issue:

Gary Paul Nabhan’s book “WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine” (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943).

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT