Landscape ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore PhD’02 is planting new ideas in Midwestern fields. Thanks to her team’s research, innovative farmers are putting in bands of native grasses beside staple crops such as corn and soybeans, a practice that holds the promise of revolutionizing farming practices nationwide.
A professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University since 2003, Schulte Moore predicts these multiuse fields will have powerful benefits: They will build healthy soil while keeping it in place; improve water quality; and enhance biodiversity — all while helping curb climate change.
“Native ecosystems are well adapted to agricultural landscapes, soils, and the climate,” says the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native who earned her B.S. in biology at UW–Eau Claire and her Ph.D. in forestry at UW–Madison before starting her career with the U.S. Forestry Service. “Theoretically, this should provide a broader suite of benefits because they’re so well adapted.”
The formal name for the strategy is prairie strips. These bands of native plants can serve as borders, run through fields, or skirt waterways. With widths of between 30 and 120 feet, they can occupy up to 25% of a tract.
When Schulte Moore and her prairie strips team first began sharing their research results more than a decade ago, the initial response from most farmers was as might be expected: Why should I plant weeds in my fields? But more and more farmers and landowners began to see the wisdom of the approach. The 2018 Farm Bill expanded its conservation program to include the practice, and now farmers and owners can receive compensation for enrolling their land.
Prairie strips, an agricultural conservation practice based on research by forest and wildlife ecology graduate and MacArthur Fellow Lisa Schulte Moore, involves planting bands of native grasses beside staple crops. The method could yield many environmental benefits, including:
Better water quality
Improved soil health
Upgraded wildlife habitats
Climate change mitigation
“It’s a perfect practice for our hilly land,” says Maggie McQuown, the owner of Resilient Farms in Red Oak, Iowa, which is on the edge of the rich Loess Hills. An early adopter, she began putting prairie strips on her 130-acre farm in 2014. In addition to reducing erosion and attracting birds and pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, McQuown loves how the native plant rows make her property look. “It adds beauty to the landscape. Because it’s on a hillside, you can see it from the highway along the hill,” she says.
Now belts composed of native grasses, including big bluestem and Indian grass, and native plants such as butterfly milkweed, rattlesnake master, white sage, and wild bergamot have been sown on more than 114,000 acres of farmland in Wisconsin and 13 other states.
That’s an amazing rate of change, according to Schulte Moore, whose family farm near Strum, Wisconsin, also boasts a prairie strip. She foresees even greater adoption of native prairie soon. A recent Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll found that 31% of Iowa farmers indicated they were potentially interested in planting these borders on their land at some point; 20% said they would do so now. Though other conservation practices have called for using native plants in similar ways, the rapid adoption of prairie strips marks “a mental shift, a transition point” in American agricultural thinking, says Schulte Moore.
Besides winning fans among farmers, Schulte Moore’s unorthodox thinking also attracted the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which, in 2021, named her a MacArthur Fellow. Commonly known as a “genius grant,” the fellowship is bestowed on high achievers in an array of disciplines and comes with a no-strings $625,000 award disbursed over five years.
“Pretty overwhelming” is how Schulte Moore describes the amount of overnight attention she received. “It’s an honor, totally life changing, and really cool.”
Winning the fellowship has supercharged her. “I want to figure out how we achieve this vision of making Iowa and the Corn Belt green, not just in the middle of summer but throughout the year, or at least have continually living roots in the soil, and have the landscape that supports this also be economically viable for farmers,” she says.
She’s also talking with engineers about the possibility of converting prairie plants into fabric for clothing. The idea came to her when she visited a Minnesota paper mill. While there, she learned that the mill also made a rayon-type fiber, used in apparel, from wood pulp. For Schulte Moore, this goal is personal. She owns a Patagonia dress decorated with a prairie print, and one of her dreams, she says, is to own a similar dress that’s actually made from native grasses.
When she looks back on her days at UW, she singles out two mentors — Ph.D. advisor David Mladenoff MS’79, professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology, who created an “incredibly vibrant environment” in his lab, and conservation biology professor Monica Turner. “Having a top-notch female scientist like her to look up to opened my eyes in terms of the possibilities of what I could achieve,” Schulte Moore says.
“Lisa had a very special combination of talents,” recalls Mladenoff, who earned his forest ecology Ph.D. at UW as well. “She had the ambition, focus, personality, and smarts, and was really good working with a group.”
A self-proclaimed “bridge person,” Schulte Moore has lived up to that observation. Her systems approach to research has led her to find partners that span academic, business, government, and nonprofit worlds.
The enthusiasm of farmers who are learning to manage prairie on their land spurs her on. “This diverse, native, perennial polyculture of prairie is the antithesis of the exotic, highly engineered, annual monocultures they’re used to,” she says. “It’s fun to watch them engage with the ecology of their farms as they learn about the history of prairie, the species in the seed mixes, what happens in soil under prairie strips, and the insects, birds, and butterflies they attract.”
“I meld scientific skills with communications and collaborative skills,” she says. “I love working both within and beyond academia. It’s so important for our work to be grounded in ways that benefit people’s lives.”This article was posted in Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems, Offshoots, Summer 2022 and tagged Conservation, David Mladenoff, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Lisa Schulte Moore, MacArthur fellowship, prairie strips.