Little College on the Prairie

Dr. Russ BenedictYou know what Iowa looks like. Corn knee-high by the Fourth of July. Soybean fields dyed yellow in the fall to match the trees. But 200 years ago, everything was different here. Instead of tractors sowing seeds, bison and elk roamed prairie speckled with wildflowers from horizon to horizon.

The future prairie landscape envisioned by Russ Benedict, associate professor of biology at Central, doesn’t look quite that way. He doesn’t want to get rid of the corn; we need it, after all. And the patches of restored prairie he hopes will spring up won’t bring back the bison. But the prairie will be awfully good for the state — for the soil; for the bugs, birds and mice; for the farmers; and for anyone who drives a car.

Benedict sits in his office in Vermeer Science Center, flipping a baseball easily from hand to hand as he talks, surrounded by the skulls of bison, elk, cows and bears. Paper bats hang from the ceiling, and stuffed rhinos and hippos are scattered on the shelves. His love of nature is “absolutely infectious,” says Rhiley Huntington, a third-year biology major at Central who has researched with Benedict. That passion for conservation, embodied in his current prairie research, began in high school, when he noticed that the birds he had been watching for years were declining. “You can’t be a naturalist without quickly realizing that things are not hunky dory,” he says.

And things certainly aren’t hunky dory for the Iowa prairie. Ninety-nine percent of it is gone, along with its historical good work for the state — reducing floods, providing habitat for birds and mice and enriching the soil Iowa’s agriculture is built on. “Prairie is the history of this place,” Benedict says, “and most Midwesterners don’t even realize what’s happened.”

Measuring plotsThat’s where Benedict comes in. He wants to fix that loss — to “literally recreate the prairie” — through the Prairies for Agriculture project. The project’s main goal is to find “the magic number” of prairie species, from native grasses to legumes, that is the most beneficial for farmers. In that pursuit, he and his team of Central students will plant 378 plots — each with a different number and combination of species — on a 17-acre site minutes from campus. “We are tinkering, trying to test all the possible combinations,” he says.

Once they find the best one, Benedict hopes farmers will begin planting prairie on unfarmable land along hillsides and streams. Many farmers already do this with switchgrass, but it’s not as advantageous as a mixture of species — a real prairie that slows down soil erosion and attracts more pollinators and other beneficial insects. And, most interesting, farmers can harvest the grasses for biofuel.

Compared to corn-based ethanol, fuel made from prairie uses less oil in its production, and the crop requires no fertilizers or pesticides. Plus, prairie grasses store tons of carbon in the ground, which means the fuel could actually be carbon negative, storing more carbon than it creates. “The time for fossil fuels is done,” Benedict says, “and the evidence is overwhelming that global climate change is happening now.” Right here in Iowa, prairie could be a solution to those worldwide problems, and Benedict is leading the way.

Students talk to lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

But not without the help of Central students. “Dr. Benedict has asked for and integrated student ideas at every stage of the project,” says Huntington. Students are involved in everything from hacking “invader” species off the site and assisting in controlled burns that recycle nutrients in the soil to fundraising in Washington, D.C. Benedict says students do a majority of the work — both intellectual and grunt. And that means students get a substantial education in research. Huntington remarks: “I’ve observed how true large-scale research is done, something I never expected to experience firsthand at a small liberal arts college.”

Despite the potential this research possesses, it’s far from complete; the planting is just beginning this fall. Although the project has received several grants and donations, Benedict stills needs funding for a utility ATV, a commercial mower and a tractor. Whatever happens, he isn’t going to give up on his vision of an Iowa transformed environmentally and economically by prairie. “I believe so strongly in this project that I’m going to shove forward anyway,” he says. The students believe, too. “The project is a small glimpse into an even more innovative future,” says Huntington.

The future Benedict has conceived is more than innovative; it’s beautiful for everyone involved — from the smallest of insects to billions of people using fuel around the world. “Prairie doesn’t immediately grab you,” he says. “To see the beauty, you have to get in there and look closely.” And that’s just what Benedict and Central students are doing.

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