Spring is a beautiful time, with flowers blooming and color returning to our landscapes. In farming regions, color is returning as well in the form of diverse habitats and native landscapes. In an effort to “restore natural ecosystems,” the potato growers of Central Wisconsin and the International Crane Foundation of Baraboo, WI have formed a collaboration to manage the participating farms as whole ecosystems.
Each spring, growers identify areas on their farms that have potential for restoration. Alison Duff, graduate student out of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (UW-Madison), works with growers to document these areas where the restoration of natural ecosystems, including grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, can be achieved. This work typically occurs on field edges, unproductive areas, or in existing remnants of native plant communities. In Central Wisconsin, this work is often focused on renovating or re-establishing native grassland with perennial flowers and grasses, including the dry sand prairies with short grasses that were originally characteristic of this region.
So, what’s the result? If done correctly, native restorations can conserve rare plants, improve habitat for declining grassland birds (such as meadowlark, bobolink, and grasshopper sparrows), and provide habitat for Wisconsin’s prairie-associated reptiles and amphibians. Perennial plant communities also benefit the soil, water, and the aesthetics of the local region.
When planting prairies, Duff explains that it is important to encourage native species, saying “we work with local seed providers to ensure we are restoring Wisconsin plants such as wild lupine, which are now declining but were once an important part of our local landscape and are the host plant for the beautiful Karner Blue Butterfly”. The site preparation process for planting a prairie is often intensive and includes control and removal of the existing non-native vegetation, soil preparation, and planting of the native seed. Growers themselves work to plant the prairies, and then maintain them as necessary with activities including tillage, burning, or other weed elimination practices to encourage proper prairie growth and establishment. The cost can exceed $1,000 per acre, but it’s worth every penny.
Nick Somers established a prairie on his farm in Plover on some of their non-productive lands in 2006 and has planted prairie on three more sites since then. Both Nick and his wife Dianne are enthusiastic about the showy wildflowers they are already beginning to see to see across their farm, including butterfly-weed, sky-blue aster, and stiff goldenrod. Duff notes, “In well-maintained prairies, a diversity of native plants and animals can be discovered, and privately owned lands are a critical part of a conservation solution to habitat loss. We simply do not have enough public land to protect all of our declining native Wisconsin species, and efforts by growers can have a significant impact across our agricultural landscapes”. For those of us who drive through these areas, it is nice to know that growers are maintaining value for us, and giving us beauty to see!