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March 4, 2005


Fresh Air Photos

   (click for larger image)
Grasslands History - modeling diversity - Part III

"Before the People, there was Grass. And the Grass invited the Sky to enrich the Earth with its Rain and Sunlight, and the Earth and Sky were joined together in the Grass. And the Grass clothed the Earth with beauty and preserved it for the People yet to come."
(From the book Grasslands featured below).


I. 1850-1930
In the mid to late 1800's, the Great Plains prairie was quickly hunted clean and settled by pioneers. With the advent of the windmill, drilled water wells, and barbed wire thousands and thousands of homesteaders poured in and spread out as part of the U.S. Homestead Act. They plowed it up - all of it, including hills - and thus began the loss of soil by wind and water erosion. The plowing of the native grass was followed in the late 1920's by the worst drought in history. The result was the "dust bowl"

II. 1930-2005
Consider this. In 1929, prior to the market crash, the per bushel price (what the farmer could sell it for) was $3.50 for wheat and $3.00 for corn. On February 28, 2005 the market price of a bushel of wheat was $4.03 and a bushel of corn was $1.91. This pretty much sums up why family farms have vanished, corporate farms have emerged and fertilizer driven monocultures are dominant. Corporate agribusiness has become the primary business of the prairie. Government grain subsidy programs artificially cap food grain prices at far below production costs. This drives out small farms, encourages mechanization, and keeps the U.S. competitive in world commodity markets. (This is a complex subject - more about it in future newsletters)

The book Grasslands was written in 1967 at a time between the reclamation of the soil losses of the 1930's and the emergence of today's corporate grain monocultures. It is a snapshot in time, telling a story of both loss and optimism.
The Book - photos and text from Grasslands

Grasslands - excerpts from the book - 1967

"Dirt piled up like snowdrifts around barns and fences. Banks foreclosed on farms, and heartsick farmers loaded what they could into their cars or pickups and headed for the migrant worker camps in California, or went on relief, or got whatever meager jobs they could, in the "Dirty Thirties". Thus ended the First Age of Grass in the land of the wide skies.

"...we learned the hard way - but we finally learned. And with our learning dawned the Second Age of Grass... It began in the High Plains in dust-bowl days when the newly created Soil Conservation Service joined forces with the sons and grandsons of the pioneers to find ways of rolling back the tide of ruin their forebears had unleashed.

"From the harsh dry plains of southern Russia, plant explorers of the U.S. Department of Agriculture had brought back a short, hardy bunchgrass. "Try it," SCS men pleaded with discouraged dust-bowlers. "You can plant it with a grain drill, just like wheat." ... If ever you have prayed for a miracle, you'll know how they felt when it sprouted, grew, hung on through thick and thin, and slowly, surely, turned the tide.

"Those early conservationists were learning what everyone who courts the native prairie grasses has to learn. As the long-lived slow-growing hardwoods are the royalty of the woodlands, so are the Andropogons, the Panicums, the Boutelouas the royalty of the prairie.

"The native prairie grasses don't grow up the first year - they grow down! They've learned from centuries of experience with Great Plains droughts not to trust the Great Plains weather. Not till they're sure they'll survive do they let themselves go above-ground.

"The return of the natives ... has inspired farmers, ranchers, bankers, conservationists, philosophers, and poets.

"Sometimes I feel the whole world's flying to pieces," one farmer says. "Then I take my dog and go out in my beautiful grass, and I know it isn't so."

"So naturally and rightly does grass relate to our lives, so quietly does it soften and transform the harsh framework of our world, that we scarcely notice it."

The Book -- click here to see photos and text from Grasslands



Overview of Nine-Mile Prairie

Nine-Mile Prairie is a 230-acre (97-hectare) relict tallgrass prairie owned by the University of Nebraska Foundation. It is located in on the northwest edge of Lincoln, in Lancaster County. The prairie was so named because it is five miles west and four miles north of the University of Nebraska campus in downtown Lincoln.

Three hundred and ninety-two vascular plant species and over 80 species of birds have been observed on the prairie. Notable species include the federally-threatened prairie white fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) and the rare regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia). The prairie is also used as a seed source of local genotypes of grasses and wildflowers for use in prairie restoration efforts in the region.

The Nine-Mile Prairie Management Committee, comprised of UNL faculty from several different departments plus resource people from several agencies and organizations, is charged with the stewardship of this biological treasure. Management consists of springtime burning on a 3-year fire-return interval (since 1979), along with periodic haying and weed/brush control using herbicides. The prairie has not been grazed since 1968.

   Web Link - snrs.unl.edu/wedin/nefieldsites/NineMile/nine_mile_prairie.htm

Other stuff...


The North American Prairie
by Stephen R. Jones and Ruth Carol Cushman
A field guide to prairie regions spanning 15 U.S. States and 3 Canadian Provinces. Each state is broken down into specific prairie refuge and preserve areas. For each area there is a discussion of native plants, wildlife, hiking, camping, best time to visit, information, how to get there and weather.
   Web Link --- North American Prairie Guide

UPCOMING - some future topics for this Newsletter

  • Eco-Economy - Lester Brown - modeling diversity
  • Percy Schmeiser - one farmer's struggle with the legal power of Monsanto and GMO monoculture - modeling diversity
  • Rural Source - a U.S. initiative promoting "outsourcing" jobs to rural communities rather than out of the country.
  • Wind Power - current events
  • The Island Institute - supporting education and economics in ME island communities

In the February 25, KF Newsletter the name of Percy Schmeiser was incorrectly spelled "Schmeister".

George Beggs 3/2005 - email feedback is welcome