Wednesday, November 19, 2014

STRIPS is a method for farmers in the Corn Belt to reduce soil loss and water runoff

Iowa, which was once 85 percent prairie but is now 85 percent cultivated, relies too much on corn and soybeans, crops that are not sustainable, opines Mark Bittman for The New York Times. The state can become more sustainable by following a new scientific approach called STRIPS, or science-based trials of rowcrops integrated with prairie strips. (Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture photo: STRIPS experiment)

STRIPS works by taking around 10 percent of farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replanting it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants, Bittman writes. "Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular."

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years, Bittman writes. She told him, "It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals, so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials—a little bit of prairie—in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

STRIPS "has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent and water runoff by 44 percent," Bittman writes. "Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive."

"By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri—a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly," Bittman writes. "And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do."

Because of the pressure to plant, many corn farmers "have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems," Bittman writes. But the STRIPS experiment "results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect—or even destructive—system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step." (Read more)

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