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!