Conservation and crop production goals are often pitted against each other, but one project is showing how the two objectives need not be mutually exclusive. "The science is showing us that we can have both," says Iowa State University researcher Lisa Schulte Moore.
That's great news for farmers because, as Gary Van Ryswyk says, "Anybody who farms does not want their soil to leave their field." Van Ryswyk farms at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, raising crops alongside prairie strips as part of the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) research project. He has helped farm land owned by the refuge where the research plots were set up; he also uses strips in his own farming operation.
Strips are an emerging soil and water conservation practice
Prairie strips are an emerging agricultural conservation practice that strategically integrates small sections of prairie into corn and soybean fields. The STRIPS project has been supported by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University since the project began in 2007.
The initial research site at Neal Smith demonstrated that planting diverse, native perennial vegetation in small areas of crop fields with high conservation value reduces runoff and thereby keeps more soil and nutrients in the field. Seven years later, the project is now in the implementation phase with more than 20 farmers and farmland owners interested in experimenting with prairie strips to demonstrate how the practice functions on different landscapes with different soil types.
Schulte Moore, Van Ryswyk, and 21 other STRIPS collaborators—including researchers alongside farmers and landowners as well as representatives from diverse agencies—are featured in a new 12-minute documentary that explains what the STRIPS project is, and why everyone is so excited about it.
Put a little bit of prairie in the right spots, and it works
One reason is the disproportionate benefits that prairie strips offer. As Schulte Moore explains, "We don't need to put all of Iowa back into prairie, but if we can be really strategic and put a little bit of prairie on the right spots in the landscape, we can actually harness most of the benefits you would get [from] large patches of prairie."
Prairie strips also have multiple roles on a landscape from improving soil to providing wildlife and pollinator habitat and contributing to water quality. "Every farm is different, and every farmer is different," says Ben Gleason of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, "and you can use the flexibility of these conservation strips to meet their needs."
Farmers who are trying these strips say they have potential
But perhaps even more exciting is the collaborative energy around the STRIPS project. "It's a great project because it's interdisciplinary," says Dave DeGeus of the Nature Conservancy. "There aren't enough of these interdisciplinary projects going on." Clare Lindahl, executive director of Conservation Districts of Iowa, echoes that sentiment. "These strips are a conservation practice that is attracting collaboration and the farmers who are trying them are rallying around the practice."
In addition to the feature video, Restoring the Balance: Prairie Conservation Strips, which debuted at the 2014 Extension Energy and Environment Summit at Iowa State University, the Leopold Center is producing several video shorts that tell more of the STRIPS story, one interview at a time.
You can view these videos online, more are being made
The first two video shorts feature Iowa State researchers Lisa Schulte Moore on STRIPS as A Difference You Can See and Matt Helmers on STRIPS as A Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Two more video shorts are already in the works, including one with landowner Maggie McQuown discussing why she wants prairie strips on her family's century farm and one with Anna MacDonald, Badger Creek Watershed Coordinator for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, discussing the habitat prairie strips provide for native wildlife.
You can find Restoring the Balance: Prairie Conservation Strips and all of the video shorts on the STRIPS research website www.prairiestrips.org, or on the Leopold Center website www.leopold.iastate.edu/stripsthemovie.