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Ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore is changing the agricultural landscape one prairie strip at a time. These swathes of native prairie strategically planted on farmland as contour buffers or edge-of-field filters are an ecological wonder. Not only do they help control erosion and mitigate climate change, but they also improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. And few have done more to promote their use than Schulte Moore, who has worked across communities and disciplines to bring the benefits of prairie strips to the Corn Belt and beyond.
The Iowa State landscape ecologist was included in this year’s group of 25 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, winning the famed “Genius Grant” of $625,000 with no strings attached. These fellowships are awarded each year to exceptionally creative leaders across a variety of fields, those who are on the verge of a major breakthrough or contribution to their field. Schulte Moore would probably shake her head with Midwestern humility at the term “genius,” but it fits. Not only has she spent years leading the research into this ecological intervention, but she has also drawn together scientists, sociologists, farmers, government officials, and business executives to find a solution to some of our toughest ecological challenges.
Civil Eats spoke with Schulte Moore about the business case for prairie strips, their role in mitigating climate change, and her dream of turning prairie biomass into clothing.
We reported on prairie strips on Civil Eats in 2019. What has been the biggest progress since then?
Funding for prairie strips was included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Iowa State University team, particularly Omar de Kok-Mercado, worked very closely with the U.S. [Department of Agriculture], and I talked a lot with farmers to integrate their input, because it has to work on farms to be adopted. Farmers could sign up starting in December 2019. This spring, the USDA Farm Service Agency listed prairie strips as a climate and water quality practice, so now there is more [financial] incentive available.
My colleague John Tyndall, who is a natural resource economist, has run the numbers and . . . prairie strips will actually be a positive income generator for farmers. Before we had estimated that they were an expense due to the opportunity lost for missed corn and soybean prices.
There are many clear benefits to prairie strips, but as I watched the MacArthur Foundation video, I noticed climate and carbon sequestration weren’t mentioned. Where is the state of the research on the climate benefit of prairie strips?
Ongoing research is demonstrating a clear climate benefit. Javed Iqbal [a soil scientist at Iowa State] published a paper looking at nitrous oxide conditions: If you have the prairie strip on the lower quarter of a hill’s slope—the portion of the slope that tends to be more inundated with water and prone to nitrous oxide [the most potent greenhouse gas] emissions—you reduce those emissions by 75 percent. Nitrous oxide has nearly 300 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide. We also have data on storage of soil organic carbon. What we’re seeing is a consistent rate of removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and storage of soil organic carbon.
Are you seeing a significant increase in the use of prairie strips among large-scale farmers?
I’ve been working with my colleague, J. Gordon Arbuckle, who is in sociology. Arbuckle conducts the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, and his data show that the vast majority of farmers have heard of prairie strips, somewhere on the order of 65 percent. Around 50-55 percent say they are willing to put prairie strips on their farm [at some point], and the latest farm data shows that 20 percent say they are ready for prairie strips on the farm [now].
In 2012, when I was giving talks about prairie strips, I would ask if anybody had heard of them and often only one or two people would raise their hand. But something happened in 2018. When I would ask the question, 80 percent would raise their hands and I thought, “Wow! I have to change the talk I’m giving!”
We’re not talking about a little tweak in what farmers are already doing. We’re talking about integrating diverse native perennial polycultures, which is kind of the antithesis of corn and soybean row crop annual monoculture, and yet over 50 percent say they’re willing to do this. I just think that’s amazingly cool!
With all of this progress, what scale is required to make a significant impact on things like water quality and climate change?
From a human dimension, we’re getting there, and that survey was conducted before the extra Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) incentives came out. The CRP data also suggests that this idea that we tested out here in central Iowa is moving out across the region.
I realize that a lot of people are frustrated with the pace of change in water quality in Iowa, but it took multiple decades to get here and it’s going to take multiple decades to get back. We’re going to have to keep pushing forward on what we know works. We need to keep investing but we also need to be patient.
Are you concerned that some farmers might plow under their prairies strips and put them back into corn or soy if prices go up? This year, we’ve had some of the highest corn and soybean prices in a generation.
We haven’t seen anyone we’ve worked with take the practice out. We have seen a couple farms where people put in prairie strips, but, for a variety of reasons—maybe CRP went up or maybe they have livestock—they decided to put the whole field into a perennial cover crop, which, from our standpoint, is good. If a little bit of perennial plants in the ground is good, a lot is even better.
Where do you see things going next? What are your plans for this funding?
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that the farmers I work with say that CRP is great, but they would rather grow for a market. So, I have been thinking a lot about market-based incentives for integrating our natural ecosystem.
For the last two years, that’s where my mind has been and where I have started to invest in developing networks and a knowledge base. I’ve worked in the ecological and conservation community, and the agricultural community, and I’ve got the engineering community connected. The next thing we need is the business community, so that we can develop new products or financial mechanisms to create this pull for system change to get our native ecosystem integrated in a really smart way. We’ve got to connect with people where they are at in terms of their mindset. I think there is a huge opportunity for some of the folks that make equipment in this space. There are people working on these things in many ways, and I am trying to help them put it together in ways that allow them to integrate profit and ecological benefit.
What is the incentive for farmers to get involved, beyond CRP payments? Is it a desire for increased yield or soil health, or what is the main selling point?
I think that is really dependent on the farmer. Some of it is improving profitability [by reducing the need for costly chemical inputs]. For some, it’s about rebuilding soil; they intuitively understand that they can use perennial vegetation to help regenerate soil in places where it has become degraded. They are thinking from the standpoint of, “I am going to eventually put this back into production, but for now we are going to improve multiple soil health measures that will improve my productivity in the long term.” Others are thinking about potential new markets for the prairie biomass—either grazing it or haying it.
My big dream is that one day—and this is totally pie-in-the-sky right now, but it’s technologically feasible—we’ll be making clothing out of prairie fibers. We can use fiber in so many different ways. And it would be so cool, not only if we were looking at our land here in the Midwest as a foodscape or fuel source, but if we could think about prairie as a viable way to supply fiber and clothing as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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