Don’t farm naked!

(A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

What do you call the stuff underneath your feet? We often call it “dirt,” usually a negative term. We may dig up “dirt” on other people. Our clothes get “dirty.” But it’s not an accurate term. What we really mean is soil.

Soil is not some dead brown crust. It’s alive, and without it, we wouldn’t be. It’s more like a raucous party, or a battlefield, or a city: A single pinch of soil contains millions of bacteria representing thousands of species, not to mention all the nematodes, springtails, rotifers, mites, and tardigrades. (be thankful your parents didn’t give its name or looks!). These are all interacting with, chomping on, and moving around various nutrients, minerals, fungi, and roots of living plants. Soil also stores water, anchors plants, and changes the Earth’s atmosphere.

But despite having a lot to show off, soil is shy. It “wants” to stay covered up and keep its beauty under a clock of vegetation. As an ecological default, natural systems trend toward perennials, plants which persist in the soil for years at a time.

Our challenge is that our major agricultural crops are annuals, which we plant into a living community primed for perennial associations. We plant seeds in May, keep the weeds down, then harvest everything in October. But from November to April, the soil surface bare. The tiny species that keep the soil healthy begin to starve for lack of solar-powered plant roots injecting food into the system. Nutrients begin to leech out of the soil and into waterways. We’re farming naked!

Enter cover crops, which are simply annual plants that can share soil space with our main agricultural crops. Planted in late summer or fall, they thrive in the cool wet months when corn or soybeans cannot grow. Some species even withstand frost and persist into the spring. In the spring, any remaining cover crops are then terminated (killed by tillage or herbicide) to allow space for planting of the main crop.

Research has shown several benefits of certain cover crop rotations: reduced compaction, erosion, and fertilizer inputs; increased soil moisture and soil carbon; and feeding the microcommunities that keep soil alive. Aesthetically, a green, textured field is a great impro­vement over an endless blanket of brown. Some flowering cover crops can even benefit pollinators. Indiana has seen a 500% increase in cover crop usage since 2011, now covering one million acres, about 10% of our corn and soy fields.

Oct. 2017. Our first trial of cereal rye as a cover crop. Eventually attaining a height of around 4 feet, this was plowed into the soil in May of 2017.

This fall, we are planting cereal rye as a cover crop in a field just east of the farm, on 9C road. This planting is made possible with funding from Clean Water Indiana, provided through the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Since the soil feels a little shy about its glory, we’ll try keep it covered with living plants. If you see our hard-working farmers, be sure to thank them for not farming naked!

You sow what you reap

(A version of this article appeared in the Sep. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

The eastern tallgrass prairie was a grass-based and fire-driven community extending from northwest Indiana hundreds of miles to the west. Essentially all of it – millions of acres – was destroyed by the plow. If this tapestry were a 1,000 piece puzzle, European settlers removed 999 pieces during westward expansion.

Volunteers harvesting seeds from Joe Pye Weed, a native wildflower that is a favorite of many pollinators.

During the middle of the 20th century, a few lone voices wondered if it weren’t possible to stitch together the remaining fragments again. The prairie restoration movement was born. But where to start?

There were no commercial nurseries with these kinds of plants. prairie enthusiasts turned towards forgotten corners of cemeteries and narrow strips along railroads. Here a few Native grasses and Wildflowers hung on with the strength of perennial roots running up to 10 feet below ground. Their above ground greenery grew back every summer and tolerates (to varying degrees) the occasional mowing or hungry cow. Their seeds formed the hope of the landscape artists.

Bags of native prairie seeds ready for mixing.

It is a comforting myth to hope that if humans just “let it go back to nature,” lost ecosystems of immense complexity would spring forth fully formed. But the prairie remnants are now too few and scattered, and the newly-arrived Asian and European weeds too prolific. The science seems to indicate that restoration for biodiversity requires careful and intentional work by humans.

Every week as I drive and bike through Marshall County, I am amazed to find new remnant prairie species in bloom that called this continent home for thousands of years. Pink and white pasture thistles, 10 foot tall yellow Prairie Dock, even prickly pear cactus in a sandy ditch! I am mapping each of these plants with my phone so that I can return later to harvest seed. From these stores, we can turn weedy fields and bare ground into a diverse network of these treasures, reminiscent of the landscape just a couple centuries ago.

Seeds from Bloodroot, a native spring wildflower that usually indicates high-quality woodlands, though I found some plants still hanging on in a rural roadside without tree cover.


“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matt 9:37). We are already starting to collect, dry, and clean seed for plantings next year. Please reach out to me if you’d like to join the prairie party!

Do you “C” what I “C?”

(A version of this article appeared in the Aug. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

When you look out at a wetland in the summer, you’ll see a flush of green, hopefully colored with dashes of yellow, blue, pink, or white. But how can you tell if a natural area is “healthy?” What are indicating that it might be “sick” or “degraded”? While ecological health cannot ever be boiled down to a single number, there are several tools that ecologists use to rate the health of a natural community. The presence or abundance of certain plants or animals can even give us a clue as to the site’s history.

Most would agree this forested wetland in Manistee Nat’l Forest (MI) is beautiful, and certainly green and growing… but it is performing the ecological functions we expect?



This is why Sr. Mary Baird and I were excited to come across a dainty, narrow-leaved, 5-petaled yellow flower as we were exploring a wetland on PHJC land. I could tell that it was a loosestrife of some sort, so I took some photos and notes so that I could identify the plant back with the resources back in my office. I then e-mailed Sr. Mary excitedly, “It’s a C 10! Prairie Loosestrife, Lysimachia quadriflora.”

Tiny plant, big indicator.



A C-what? I was referring to a numbered scale, from 0 – 10, called the Coefficient of Conservatism. Each plant has been assigned a number, a “C-value,” by a panel of botanical experts. These values represent the species’ tendency to represent a specific, undisturbed natural community characteristic of the land before the European settlement. (See the foundational paper for Indiana C-values here).

Dandelions, for example, have a C-value of 0 and are found pretty much anywhere soil is disturbed by foot traffic or mowers. Swamp milkweed has a C-value of 6, and are as easily at home in a roadside ditch as a high-quality wetland. Prairie loosestrife tops out the scale at 10. It is “conservative” and doesn’t like change and disruption. Finding a single diminutive plant indicated to us that the wetland we were searching may have other treasures – complex networks of soil, microbes, insects, and other “conservative” plants. Of the 88 plant species we identified, four had C-vales of 8-10.

The Prairie Loosestrife also indicated that this former cattle pasture might have contained a fen, which is a unique wetland type that is fed year-round by groundwater through calcium-rich soils. While rebuilding a rain-fed marsh is fairly straightforward, this particular network of underground hydrology is so complex that scientists have been unable to reconstruct these communities of fen plants, soils, and microorganisms. As a fellow ecologist once told me, “Humans don’t create fens. Ice ages create fens.”

We will be working over the coming years to reduce the weedy, invasive plants that took over much of this wetland when it was used as a cattle pasture. We are hoping that dormant seeds of even more unique fen plants will spring forth as new opportunity is given for growth. Who knows what you and I will “C” next?!