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ARS Home » Plains Area » Mandan, North Dakota » Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #321044

Title: The EcoSun Prairie Farm: An experiment in bioenergy production, landscape restoration, and ecological sustainability

item ZILVERBERG, CODY - Texas A&M Agrilife
item JOHNSON, W - South Dakota State University
item Archer, David
item SCHUMACHER, THOMAS - South Dakota State University
item BOE, ARVID - South Dakota State University

Submitted to: Extension Reports
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 9/15/2015
Publication Date: 12/15/2015
Citation: Zilverberg, C.J., Johnson, W.C., Archer, D.W., Schumacher, T., Boe, A. 2015. The EcoSun Prairie Farm: An experiment in bioenergy production, landscape restoration, and ecological sustainability. Extension Reports. South Dakota State University Extension,iGrow report 07-5001-2015. South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD. 96 pp.

Interpretive Summary:

Technical Abstract: In 2008, the non-profit corporation, EcoSun Prairie Farms (hereafter EcoSun), began establishing mixtures and monocultures of native prairie species in eastern South Dakota on a section of land (hereafter Prairie Farm) that had been conventionally farmed with annual crops for more than a century. The purpose of the Prairie Farm farm-scale experiment was to demonstrate that farming native perennial species by selling biomass as hay and biofuel feedstock, by grazing commercial livestock, and by selling native plant seed, was an economically viable option for landowners in eastern South Dakota and the surrounding region. It was anticipated that the conversion from conventional annual crops to native perennials would also greatly increase the provision of ecosystem services, including cleaner water, improved wildlife habitat, and reduced soil erosion. During the farm’s operating years, from 2008 to 2014, numerous experiments were conducted, ranging from the landscape-scale down to plots of 0.5 ft.2. The Prairie Farm experiment demonstrated that diverse mixtures of native grassland species can be successfully established, managed, harvested, and marketed on former cropland in the northern Tallgrass Prairie region. Once established, the farm produced income similar to the median household income in South Dakota. However, income from grassland products was less than could have been received from renting the land for conventional crop farming. Improved marketing and more focus on specialty enterprises with high returns per acre could have increased revenue. However, economic feasibility is a common problem encountered in ecosystem restoration; a farmer converting formerly tilled land to grassland is not financially compensated for the many new services (such as water purification, soil retention, groundwater recharge, pollinators, climate protection, and aesthetics) his management change provides to the public. Lack of compensation for providing ecosystem services limits the profitability of restored grassland and hence their adoption by landowners. This seven-year experiment has generated considerable quantitative data on the production, management, and marketing of biomass feedstock to inform a nascent cellulosic biofuel industry, should one develop in the near future. To encourage widespread adoption of the Prairie Farm model, the model must work for both the farmer and the public. Several ways this might happen are: 1) the grassland farmer receives appropriate compensation from the public for the ecosystem services provided, 2) the prices of common grassland products (seed, hay, beef, biofuel feedstock, etc.) in the marketplace improve relative to commodity crops, or 3) governments or non-profit corporations subsidize grassland farms and commodity crops similarly, rather than favoring the production of commodity crops. Should the value of commercial grassland farms become more widely recognized and monetized, adoption of Prairie Farm practices will become more likely in farm country throughout the northern Great Plains and Midwest.