Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Speaking for the prairie

Tommy Hexter ‘21 and Jacy Highbarger ‘22 wrote this post. The authors are co-founders of Grinnell College’s chapter of Herbicide-Free Campus; Poweshiek Soil and Water Commissioner (former), and student members of Too Much Grass student-initiative at Grinnell College.

In the spring of 2021, a group of excited Grinnell College students, along with faculty and staff, acted on a student initiative called “Too Much Grass” and came together to create a 5,200 square foot prairie in the most prominent location on campus, Mac Field.

In collaboration with the College Center for Prairie Studies and the recently-founded Herbicide-Free Grinnell, chapter of the larger organization Herbicide-Free Campus, Too Much Grass aims to remove unnecessary lawn areas on campus and plant prairie seeds in their place. The hope is to create a place where future Grinnellians for generations to come will loaf through the planting and ponder the meaning of these deep perennial roots in Iowa soil.

In just three months, this project has already sparked interest in another planting on campus scheduled for September.  

As we’ve watched the 6,500 plants of more than 35 distinct native species grow these past few months, and as interest in the initiative grows, we’ve reflected on the direction we would like to take our community efforts. We find ourselves asking, “What is the future of land management in Iowa?” And in this question we’ve been able to speak to broader problems and solutions in environmentalism and land management. 

 Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) blooming

A few months ago, we watched “The Lorax.” Initially a Dr. Seuss book for children, The Lorax story calls back to the nascent environmental movement of 50 years ago, where the Lorax continues to “speak for the trees,” even when there are none left. Five decades later, in a land far, far away from the truffula trees and the barba-loots eating the truffula fruits in their suits, we live in a bleeding Iowa, many of us in somewhat movie-like, idyllic small towns, surrounded by fields and fields of displaced natural ecosystems uprooted and replaced with literally erosive and toxic systems of land management. 

We find ourselves asking, Who is left to speak for the prairies? Well, if there’s any hope left, it has to be us, the people of Iowa, in every hillside and creekbed of the state: the small town dwellers, the farmers, the city folk, those devoted to education at our colleges and schools. 

That is, we, the 3.1 million people who inhabit this 36 million acres of land carved out between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. What was once a vast, rolling expanse of flora, fauna, and beautiful creatures of the air inhabited by the Meskwaki, Ioway, Dakota Sioux, Illini, Otoe, and Missouria tribes has now been largely replaced both by monocultures of humans and plants.

Currently, 30.6 million acres of our state is devoted to cropland, those rolling fields managed with hydraulic planters, industrial combines, and converted warplanes buzzing low overhead. If divided evenly, each Iowan would get 9.9 of those acres which are currently devoted to crops. Instead, 4.8 percent of Iowa’s population owns 100 percent of Iowa’s farmland. Let that soak in – 95 percent of the state’s population has little to no say in how the vast majority of the state’s land mass is used. 

As a state, we have entered dangerous territory, where corporations like seed manufacturing Bayer and meat packaging JBS work together to use market mechanisms and government influence in a way that dictates the story of our land. The allure of profit and the lack of regulation to conserve our natural resources often cause simple chemical fixes and reckless soil management to overshadow the complexity of holistic solutions and the hardships of commitment to sustainable change. 

We exist in a present day where a system of roboticized land and livestock management forces both allow and necessitate far too few people to take care of far too much land. The insistence on simplicity and efficiency leads to cutting the corners of intentionality, creative connection with land and community, and sustainability. This is no fault of the farmer, who is devoted to the care of their farm, yet becomes like a “serf on their own land,” the fruit of their fields “not accruing to local rural communities but likely to shareholders who live in far-off places” (source). The consequences are dire. 

For example, each acre of cropland in Iowa erodes 5.5 tons of soil per year, sediment containing fertilizer and pesticides. The runoff has resulted in RoundUp in our water cycle and the impairment of 61 percent of Iowa’s rivers and streams.

Beyond many more unlisted environmental effects, we have the economic implications: from 1950 to 2014, the number of farms in Iowa decreased from over 210,000 to under 90,000. Among these, the 22.5 percent which are categorized as “commercial farms” collect 80.2 percent of the gross cash income amongst all farms, revealing a trend of consolidation of wealth for fewer citizens and more agricultural tycoons within our state (source).

The social impacts of the current heartland agriculture are perhaps most disturbing. We live in a state with an undeniable rural-urban divide, with nose-turning and political jabs, closed doors, and ever-diminishing room for conversations. 

Our land is locked in one method of management. Environmental degradation, the economic collapse of small-town Iowa, and the unraveling of the social fabric of our communities are all symptoms. We can see the frustration from both sides. Farmers feel that they are being asked to do the impossible — managing massive scale farms to “feed the world” while also trying to implement conservation and mitigate climate change — while non-farmers feel their livelihoods, health, and environment for living are being harmed by practices out of their control.

The isolation and polarization must come to an end. It is time to recognize we have enough people to take care of this land and of each other, and we must find out ways, however small at first, to begin doing it together. 

Our student-led prairie restoration project at Grinnell College offers a hopeful example of how many people can come together to practice meaningful and intentional land stewardship and restoration projects. From the start, the prairie project garnered support from a diverse group. Last fall, the Too Much Grass Student Initiative was passed with 63.6 percent of the student vote, revealing a deep-seated desire for more on-campus prairie locations.

From there, a collective of students and groups formed to spearhead the project, representing multiple campus clubs and organizations: Student Environmental Coalition, Herbicide-Free Grinnell, Farm House, and many more. A committed and powerful grassroots community, including College President Anne Harris, formed around the project before the ground thawed in the spring. 

With the president on our side, our team began to work through the details of implementing a prairie restoration on-campus, with the goal of planting seedlings in the ground before spring graduation. Facing a time crunch and unwilling to compromise our values of sustainable, non-toxic land stewardship, we met our biggest challenge: herbicides.

It is common practice to use glyphosate-based herbicides to kill grass and other unwanted plant life to make way for prairie restoration. However, the efficiency of these chemicals is overshadowed by the harm they cause: killing precious soil microbes, running off into waterways, posing danger to the sprayers, and removing a valuable opportunity for humans to actively engage with the soil. Chemical land management is alluring for getting the job done quickly, thoroughly, and without much human effort and planning, a primary reason it is used in large-scale monoculture farming. With few people taking care of too much space in a culture detached from its landscape, an herbicide future is seemingly the only way.

But in our project, with many people and a relatively small planting area, we decided to embark on a creative and innovative journey; one which would require extensive planning and labor and begin to illuminate a herbicide-free way forward. With the support of Grinnell students, community members willing to lend hands and tools, and the guidance from the national Herbicide-Free Campus network, we used a sod-cutter, hauled the sod out in wheelbarrows, and brought in a dump truck full of compost to spread over the area over the course of two weekends.

More than 70 students volunteered multiple Saturday mornings to help us haul grass and dirt in wheelbarrows to prepare for converting this small piece of campus to prairie. After the site was prepared, our native plant expert Kelly Norris arranged a shipment of two pallet loads of native prairie plants and drew an intricate blueprint to put their roots deep into the Iowa soil.

Led by a passionate and skilled community with clear and focused intentions, we converted 1/8th of an acre of on-campus turfgrass into a native prairie restoration plot. The diversity of the planting and of those involved reflect one another. The groups of people involved in this intensive but rewarding project demonstrate the power of a project that contradicts the Iowan and general American tradition of chemical land management, with a tangible, deep-rooted, vivacious prairie. Such diversity is a sight to behold in a sea of monoculture, and an essential piece of a sustainable and inclusive future.

The prairie itself continues to grow, upward with greenery and leaves, and downward, establishing roots that will hold down our precious Iowa soil. These deep roots of diversity remind us of the way our landscape has changed over time, providing a vision of the once timeless prairie that was and the people who inhabited it.

Ox-eye, also known as false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

We recall a state of prairie and savannah, blooming with diverse plants and animals connected through the system of sustainability and reciprocity with the indigenous people who stewarded the land. Today, we have built an industrial wasteland of corporately-owned and chemically managed monoculture farms.

To make amends with the landscape and mend the social fabric of our state, we must look to what makes us strong – collective, communal land stewardship – instead of falling back on the status quo of simple, dangerous answers. When communities come together to remember the past and create sustainable futures, with deep roots and flowers that stretch towards the sun, we begin to answer questions about the way we treat our land that we used to not have the words to discuss. So, let us not hold our tongues but let us speak for the prairie. 

  • People and pollinators will benefit from this planting. Thank you, Grinnell students!

    I have different priorities and philosophies regarding prairie establishment, but I applaud this project. And I really appreciate the opportunity to read about it in detail. Thank you, Tommy Hexter and Jacy Highbarger, for writing this long and very interesting post.

  • Prairie enthusiast

    You could say our economic system in Iowa and much of the Midwest is based on us feeding off the corpse of the prairie. Having consumed or destroyed even the prairie soils themselves our economic foundation grows shorter.

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