The Prairie

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    Imagine: the tall  grass moving in an undulating fashion, the colors changing with the ever persisting prairie wind; yellow and blue, purple and white. The butterflies chasing each other above the many wild flowers, giving the appearance of the grass and flowers flying. And then they came, the pioneers. They came with their own histories and with their own agendas. They also came with their own prejudice born of their times and background . And they thought or were led to believe that the land was theirs if they could subdue it and make it produce wheat and oats and corn for the ever expanding markets of the cities in the east.
    With much sacrifice and hard work, they plowed the native prairie and planted the crops that would thrive here in the fertile virgin soil. They often built barns before they built houses to prove they had a “claim” to the land. They lived in dug outs, endured fierce winter storms and scorching summers. They endured swarms of grasshoppers, floods and droughts to achieve their dreams of owning their own piece of land, of being able to cultivate this land and feed their families. They worked and hoped for a better future for their children.
    And what did their children get? The dustbowl. The nightmare that was the dustbowl was due to the intense cultivation of the prairie. The prairie grasses have deep roots that could withstand periods of severe drought. But with the consistent exposing of the soil by plowing coupled with the  shallow rooted plants of wheat and corn, the drought of the 30s brought on the worst man-made ecological disaster of the western world. The winds blew fierce clouds of black dust that covered everything and forced a huge migration of people west.
    In 1935, soil conservation pioneer Hugh Hammond Bennett planned his speech to congress  to coincide with an approaching dust storm. As the sun was blotted out and dust fell on the Capitol, Bennett told congress:”this, gentlemen, is what I’ve been talking about.” Congress then passed the Soil Conservation Act.
    The act sought to correct the earlier government policy that has encouraged farmers to use land without concern. It educated farmers on how to farm without damage to the soil by new methods of cultivation and by planting trees and native grasses to preserve fertility. Three years after the act was adopted, soil erosion had dropped 21%.
    In the 1950s and 60s, USDA(United States Department of Agriculture) sponsored the Soil Bank Program. Now, farmers were paid to retire land from production for ten years. The Soil Bank Program was designed to curb overproduction of grain and thus stimulate grain prices at the same time as it improved the quality of the soil and prevented erosion. The Soil Bank Program is the predecessor of today’ s Conservation Reserve Program.
    The Farm Service Agency now oversees a number of conservation programs. The CRP is designed to improve the fertility of the soil by planting native grasses. It also preserves habitat for wildlife, including food for butterflies and bees. And it makes the country side prettier.
     We live surrounded by CRP fields where the wild grasses and flowers of the prairie undulates and deer roam while hawks dive for field mice and other critters that inhabit our fields.   The appearance of the prairie changes with the season, from the vivid green of spring to the muted colors of late summer. And in the winter, snow is caught in the tall grass and sparkles in the sun from the clear, clean blue of the prairie sky.

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