a trip to Whiterock Conservancy

I took some time off recently to attend a family gathering in Iowa, where a few generations ago my family first homesteaded on the prairie. We decided to stop a couple places on the way to take advantage of having everyone in the car for a road trip.

Our first stop was at Starved Rock State Park, just off of Interstate 80. It has some interesting geology that is unique for northern Illinois. There is a nice system of trails, though with the heavy traffic the park receives, it was a little worse for wear. We somehow managed 3-4 miles in mud and stairs without any ticks, medical emergencies, or emotional breakdowns.

Can you spot the groundhog? He made quite a show of his rock climbing abilities for us

Highlights included a water snake, a giant millipede, and lots of beautiful streams and canyons.

The earth paints slowly, with liquid gravity.

The next day we stopped for a long break at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which we hadn’t seen since we started a family. The refuge is thousands of acres of habitat located in the heart of corn country, and is one of the largest tallgrass prairie restorations on the continent. They have an active “friends group” (non-profit) that participates in programming and fund-raising, and their prairie learning center is top notch. Suffice it to say, I was a little excited!

An educational display on prairie restoration tools.
Plant plugs in a demonstration/learning greenhouse.
The incomparable roots of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Neal Smith has 700 acres of it’s restoration fenced in for a few dozen bison and elk. Other than rounding them up annually for vaccinations, they leave them be. We didn’t get a close up, but we saw them on the hill.

We lodged that evening at an old farmhouse at Whiterock Conservancy, an organization I have been eyeing for a couple years.

Home, home on the range… a morning filled with the songs of grassland birds.

Whiterock Conservancy is a 5,500 acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection and public recreation on the landscape… Whiterock Conservancy was formed ten years ago to manage one of the largest land gifts in the history of Iowa generously given by the Garst family. Today it stewards 5,500 acres along the scenic Middle Raccoon River Valley near Coon Rapids, IA. The gorgeous Whiterock landscape that attracts visitors from all over the state, region and nation is a mix of savannas, rolling pastures, native and restored prairies, wetlands, riverside bluffs, fishing ponds, crop ground, and unique historic, geologic, and archaeological sites.

Trailhead signs to orient visitors.

I appreciated the simplicity and focus of their mission and the way they integrated the various aspects of the land community. Far from any metropolis or large natural area, it was a very unique place.

Educational signs for field days and tours.

The Prairie Strips project of Iowa State is research that I’ve been following for several years, and I was very pleased stumble upon this demonstration site. “The STRIPS project is composed of a team of scientists, educators, farmers, and extension specialists working on the prairie strips farmland conservation practice. Our research shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple benefits. By converting 10% of a crop field to diverse, native perennials farmers and farmland owners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90% and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85%. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects

Demo site. I saw several researchers in the field as I was sipping my coffee on the front porch.

This is where I’m supposed to write something snappy to sum it all up… but that’s enough commentary and photos. More later… Have a nice weekend!

the return of the Tortrix: Year 3

May 26, 2017 had brought a “plague” of webworm larva to a beautiful plum tree outside of Lindenwood. I wrote about the saga a few weeks after it happened (part 1 and part 2), and the lesson in biodiversity that it offered us. The tree re-foliated nearly completely that summer.

I noticed that the worms were back in 2018. I remember taking a picture, but can’t find it at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, I saw on June 5th that they are back again for the 3rd year in a row (at least).

It looks like we are going to see how resilient this tree is! Until then, we wish a happy feast for all the fat baby bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers.

Solarize Marshall County

We try to not only demonstrate renewable energy technology through our own operations (like solar panels and electric vehicles), but also to help encourage and facilitate its adoption throughout the community.

So it is with great excitement that we seeing a Northern Indiana Solarize program launch in Marshall, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties. It is being led by the intrepid and tireless Leah Thill, Senior Environmental Planner for the Michiana Area Council of Governments.

If you are a home or small business owner interested in learning more, please join us in Culver on June 19th.

an heirloom corn trial at Moontree

Perhaps our grand societal experiment in social media will eventually prove to be a huge waste of time, a determinant to our mental health and spiritual satisfaction, and the death blow to civic discourse and democracy, but occasionally it can be quite useful!

I have just enough Spanish fluency to be dangerous (read: to sound like a babbling 3-year-old), and I saw a Spanish-language posting on Facebook looking to recruit folks to plant some heritage/heirloom Mexican corn varieties, for the purpose of amplifying the seed stock.

Corn is an amazing plant. It is thought to have originated from a Mexican/Central American grass named teosinte. Maize (as it’s called outside of U.S., and maíz in Spanish) has been cultivated (domesticated) by humans over the last 9,000 years or so. Through annual cycles of trial and error, humans help create hundreds of varieties of this important grain, suitable for many purposes, soils, and climates. “Corn was ground and made into flour, cornmeal, tortillas, cornbread, hominy, grits, and polenta. They grew flint, dent, and flour corn varieties for these purposes and some of these are still available today” (Growing Heirloom Corn).

I’m pretty sure you have to shuck a minimum of 12 ears of corn per summer or you officially lose your Indiana residency. Bonus Hoosier points if you get a laundry basket full.

Indigenous Americans, at least in the Midwest, appeared to have practiced something like slash-and-burn corn cultivation, where nutrient-rich clearings grew corn for a few years. Without synthetic fertilizers, the fields had to be temporarily abandoned for a number of years or cycled to other crop. Because human populations were much lower than today, this extensive agriculture was not a threat to biodiversity at large In fact, this periodic disturbance, combined with fire and grazing animals, gave rise to a diversity of habitat types across the landscape and thus a diversity of organisms.

You can read more about heirloom corns here. Its history and diversity is not unlike other domesticated crops. When I lived in Bolivia I learned that the Andean people had over 500 varieties of potatoes in circulation.

With the continued trend of commercialization and simplification of our food system (and commercial ownership of the underlying genetics), we are losing the genetic diversity not just of wild species, but also of our cultivated varieties of food.

Thinking more holistically, each generation in the post-industrial West has also become more disconnected from food diversity and food production systems. So I thought a small foray into this project would be well worth the effort. A small bet, as we like to say.

I connected with a seed saver in the Michiana area who had several samples of various heirloom corns. He graciously offered to ship me two lots for seed amplification. We are growing these not for food (this year), but to increase the seed source and try to recruit new people to participate in maintaining this genetic diversity. Corn is a cultural as much as a genetic resource, and has to be maintained over time.

I planted the first block of ~200 seeds the other week. It is called Tabilla de Ocho and is from the Sinaloa region of Mexico. There are some pretty substantial differences in climate, soils, and day-length between here and there, so it’s a bit of a gamble. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Now, the cultural connection I will admit is a bit of a stretch. I don’t have indigenous or Mexican heritage myself. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to connect this project (if it turns into a project) to our neighbors of Mexican heritage. The most recent round of immigration into Marshall County includes Mexican families who came for agricultural work. Most of these jobs, I believe, are gone and have been replaced with factory and service work. I’m curious to see if there is interest.

I invited Sister Yolanda (a PHJC who is visiting from the Mexican community of Sisters) to join me to sembrar. As we planted, she told me about her experience planting and tending corn as a little girl.

Before long, we were done. We covered the seeds in a layer of thick compost.

A week later I caught another break in the weather to plant the 2nd set of corn, Bear Island Chippewa, which is an Ojibwe variety from the Great Lakes region. Without knowing much else, I expect that it will do better than the Sinaloan corn, being that it is adapted to this region. The seeds were a beautiful rainbow of colors.

These are open-pollinated varieties, meaning that if they happen to tassel (pollinate) at the same time, I could get cross-contaminated seed. But… taking an optimist’s viewpoint, I could just be creating a brand new variety of seed. (These aren’t the very last lots of these varieties, otherwise this would be a much more controlled environment).

After 7 days, the first planting of Tabilla de Ocho had already sprouted. And the first weed seedling emerges between the rows, so I had to take care of those too.

Sitting back and enjoying the (small) fruits of my labor for a brief second, my thoughts of course turned to the rest of the growing season… I had just committed myself (and a couple other co-workers) to regular weeding, emergency watering, and fertilization (corn is a very nitrogen-hungry crop). That’s all if the raccoons and deer don’t destroy everything in a single night’s raid.

I suppose that’s kind of the point. Corn is a human invention, a species that has been domesticated to suit our purposes. It requires our intervention, discernment, attention, and resources.

But considering that we (Westerners) have plowed, drained, and chemically treated 99% of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in pursuit of this grain… perhaps it is in the fact the corn that has domesticated us!