The crop fields and natural areas in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area make up a diverse and complex landscape that intermingles one of the nation’s most productive potato and specialty crop production areas with remnants of prairies, oak savannas, pine breaks, wetlands, streams and lakes that existed after the glaciers receded thousands of years ago. This diversity provides ecological services—such as soil health, drainage, pollination and natural regulation of unwanted or invasive species—that go largely unrecognized and yet are essential to a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. Much of the land in the Central Sands is privately owned by the farmers, whose families settled it generations ago. We are indeed fortunate that these far-sighted growers recognize the importance of the diversity contained on their farmsteads and are taking steps to preserve it by restoring remnants of natural habitats to their original condition. More than ten years ago, several potato growers in the Sands set out to develop more sustainable approaches to farming that preserved natural resources and ecological diversity. The program, called Healthy Grown™, involves the restoration on habitat remnants, and the use of fire is an important tool in that process.
Historically, the natural burning of prairies, wooded areas, and wetlands was important to maintain the diversity of species requiring more open landscapes. Without fire, plant species diversity is diminished and regional landscapes change, but with proper timing, prescribed burning controls many undesirable woody plants and herbaceous weeds while invigorating native, fire-dependent species. Prescribed burning can prepare a site for planting and/or seeding, inhibit exotic/invasive species, improve habitat for grassland species and reduce the potential for property-damaging wildfires. Fire removes invading woody plants that store most of their active growing tissue above ground while deep-rooted prairie plants can regenerate and thrive using growing tissue located below the ground. Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, and the bare soils warm up earlier in the spring to promote rapid growth of native plants. (more…)