Written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center
“Nature doesn’t work without connection.” – Mary Ellen Hannibal, Spine of the Continent
Two weeks ago, the Iowa Water Center staff attended a lecture on a study conducted with the Iowa State University Prairie STRIPS Project. Eduardo Luquin Oroz, graduate student at the University of Wageningen, presented results from examining the sediment deposition at the sites associated with this project as well as the strip width effects on sediment deposition. After leaving the presentation, the above quote immediately entered my mind.
STRIPS, which stands for Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips, is the use of filter and contour strips of prairie land within corn and soybean fields. Evidence shows that the use of this practice can be both beneficial to the environment in reducing soil and nutrient loss and can be affordable for farmers. The Prairie STRIPS project states that by changing as little as 10% of a cropped field to perennials, it can reduce the amount of soil leaving the field by 90% and reduce nitrogen leaching by up to 85%. This practice also extends beyond the field to social and other ecological benefits. This is through providing natural habitats that support pollinator and insect populations.
Oroz outlined the benefits our system can receive from the integration of diverse plant life within Midwestern agriculture. Part of his study examined different land use scenarios. This was to determine the optimal amount of land conversion of farm ground to perennials that would address soil and water management in the field. The study also explored a variety of perennial placement options. Results showed that having prairie integrated within row crop fields, rather than in isolated blocks at the drainage outlet of a field, was effective in reducing soil and water loss. Placing prairie strategically in the drainage area in the field also creates corridors. This breaks up the use of the field where wildlife and native grasses can intermix with row crop agriculture. Corridors can serve as passages for species, such as pollinators, to other natural areas. Creating these connections supports resilient ecological populations and a healthy environment. Overall, the results from this study show that integrating our different landscapes, as opposed to isolating them, can bring holistic benefits to plants, wildlife, and people.
Lately, the Prairie STRIPS project is getting more attention from the public who want to see it scaled-up beyond the research and out in more fields. Iowa farmers, such as Tim Smith, and even urban dwellers that include Mark Bittman, are serving as advocates for this practice. Prairie STRIPS is not only bridging our landscapes, but also bringing different stakeholders together on conservation. Ultimately, connection may be the key when it comes to addressing our water-related issues.