A Graphic View of Diversity’s Power

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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good infographic can be the equivalent of thousands of pounds of soil. That thought occurred to me recently while viewing the cool illustration below. Produced by scientists who are studying the effects of adding some targeted diversity to row-cropped fields in central Iowa, it tells a clear, and important, story: converting just 10 percent of a corn or soybean field to native prairie can cut the amount of eroded soil that leaves a field by over 5,000 pounds per acre—a 95 percent reduction.

As we’ve discussed in this blog before, the STRIPS team and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have done some extremely innovative research the past half-dozen years proving you can get a pretty big bang for your conservation buck by strategic placement of patches of prairie in row-cropped fields. As this graphic, which is part of a new STRIPS publication, shows, besides reducing erosion dramatically, this targeted conservation can slash the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that leaves the field by 90 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

Such reductions in fertilizer runoff should be of particular interest to Midwesterners who care about clean water, given recent reports of nitrogen pollution being at sky-high levels, both throughout the Mississippi River basin as well as right here in Minnesota. And as I witnessed firsthand while visiting the STRIPS research site in Iowa last summer, those prairie plants are providing critical habitat for grassland birds and pollinating insects—that latter benefit is becoming even more critical with each new media report of the demise of the honey bee.

Graphic representations of the dramatic results targeted conservation can produce are important as scientists attempt to take this innovation beyond the test plot and get it established on working farms throughout the region. One farmer in southwest Iowa is already experimenting with prairie strips, and 14 more have shown strong interest in adopting the practice.

The Land Stewardship Project is examining how prairie strips could be used by farmers we’re working with in western Minnesota’s Chippewa River watershed and in the Root River basin, in the southeastern part of the state.

I and other LSP staffers, as well as members, have visited the STRIPS site and seen firsthand just how much of a difference a little diversity in an otherwise mono-cropped field can make. It’s quite striking, especially when one considers that the fields which are part of this research are already being managed using a no-till system—a soil-friendly technique that unfortunately is starting to show signs of not always being able to withstand onslaughts of extreme climate events.

But not every conservationist, agronomist or farmer can visit the STRIPS research site. That’s why infographics like this are so key. As Gary Van Ryswyk, the farmer who is raising crops in the original research plot, told me last summer, he really didn’t think the strips would make that much difference until be saw the results firsthand.

“I was one of these guys who didn’t think we were losing that much soil. I was shocked at how much was being lost,” he said while examining a pile or eroded soil near a collection flume. “One of the big barriers is, like me, most farmers truly believe they aren’t losing as much soil as they really are.”


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