That Certain Feeling

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The other evening I walked a western Minnesota farm that had a certain “feel” to it. LSP podcast episodes 66 and 67 provide a sense of how we can help nurture more of these kinds of farms that not only feel good, but also provide a good livelihood.

Maybe it was the springy effect of all those grassy roots beneath my feet. Or maybe it was the songbirds flitting around grazing cattle while pelicans cruised overhead. But Moonstone truly is a farm as natural habitat. It’s in the upper portion of the Minnesota River Valley, in an area that looked quite different 150 years ago, an area that could use a few more farms as natural habitats.

Prior to European settlement, the prairie formed the largest ecosystem in North America. It stretched from Canada to Mexico and from the Rockies to Indiana. At one time a third of Minnesota and 80 percent of Iowa was covered in prairie plants. Today, well less than one percent of those native prairies have escaped the plow and bulldozer.

Western Minnesota was smack-dab in the middle of this sea of grass, and the richness of its soils today after years of intensive farming is a testament to the amazing ability of prairie systems to build a biologically rich ecosystem underground. It sure grows good corn.

When we lost the prairies, we also lost the ecological services that came with the deep-rooted grasses, forbs and legumes found in these ecosystems, and the results have been predictable: increased erosion, less wildlife, more released carbon and more polluted water. In some ways, we only have a hint as to all the ways prairies improve the environment. Remember: some 80 percent of the biomass present in a typical tallgrass prairie is underground.

Government natural resource agencies have responded by, among other things, preserving as much remnant prairie on publicly owned land as possible.  This has helped, but it’s not enough. In Midwestern states like Minnesota and Iowa, private agricultural acres make up the bulk of the landscape in rural areas.

It’s become clear in recent years that if we are to reclaim some of those lost ecological services, a way must be found to make perennial plant systems like grasses, legumes and forbs economically viable on private working farms. We may never see a true return of the widespread prairie to places like western Minnesota, but we can put in place perennial-based farming systems that replicate in a loose way the best such systems have to offer.

Moonstone Farm has done just that. Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen are producing beef on rotationally grazed pastures that contain a variety of perennial plants. Birds and other wildlife thrive on the farm, and water quality in the vicinity is benefiting — an important point considering that the Minnesota River is less than a mile from Moonstone.

As Arner explains, this wouldn’t mean much in the long term if they couldn’t make it pay. That’s why the farmers sell their beef directly to consumers and restaurants that are seeking a natural, great tasting product that’s good for the environment. They are making perennialization pay.

Farmers like Arner and Handeen have impressed natural resource professionals like David Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, which is operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural resources near Moonstone Farm.

Trauba and other natural resource managers have even begun experimenting with utilizing livestock from neighboring farms as tools for maintaining prairie health on public lands.  Trauba recently toured Moonstone Farm as part of a field day sponsored by LSP, Pheasants Forever and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.

He told me in a podcast interview after the tour that he has great hope that working farms like Moonstone can play a big role in producing ecological services in areas once dominated by prairie systems. He’s basing that on some scientifically quantifiable observations, of course: more birds per acre, greater diversity per inch, less tons of erosion and water testing lower in contaminants. But farms like this also give off a certain aura that’s hard to fit into a spread sheet or scientific paper.

It’s a sustainable farm, and sustainability is, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said famously in 1964 when trying to describe obscenity, hard to fit into a neat box. “…I know it when I see it…,” said Stewart, driving legal scholars and theater owners crazy ever sense.

Well, when it comes to sustainable farms like Moonstone, “I know it when I feel it.”

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