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How the natural history of central Illinois could bring farms into the future

Kaitie Adams at work
Savanna Institute
Farm manager Kaitie Adams at work at Allerton Park near Monticello, Ill. The Savanna Institute manages a commercial-scale demonstration farm in the park that features rows of hardwood timber with alleys of annual row-crop rotation, as well as pawpaw, persimmon, and northern pecan planting to expand genetic diversity.

Today on Food Trek, host Tory Dahlhoff explores how a diverse tallgrass prairie was transformed into a landscape now dominated by monoculture crops. How did a biodiverse prairie that excelled at storing carbon turn into farmland that contributes to climate change? And you will learn about one of the efforts to bring Midwest farms back to the future.

“You often hear about all the problems that farms cause for climate change,” said Keefe Keeley, co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, based in Madison, Wis. “But what adding trees to farms actually does is gives us an opportunity to be a part of the solution.”

According to the EPA, agriculture accounted for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Those emissions come from a variety of things—from conventional land and soil management to cow … we’ll call it “digestion.” So how can agriculture reverse its trend of adding to climate change and instead begin reversing it?

To get some idea, we just need to look back, to a time not long ago when Illinois was mostly prairie.

“21.3 million acres of prairie and about 14.2 million acres of forests. I like to think of the historic landscape of Illinois as this rich mosaic of prairie, forests, savanna, wetland ecosystems,” said Jamie Ellis, a botanist and the natural areas coordinator for the Illinois Natural History Survey.

And within that mosaic, there was a wild diversity of life – and in the soil.

“We had these deep-rooted prairie plants living and growing and dying over the past, you know, 7,000 to 8,000 years. All that organic matter really did develop the rich, black soils,” Ellis said.

"So for thousands of years, we had this diverse prairie ecosystem, with trees and other perennial plants that could take carbon out of the atmosphere and through photosynthesis, pull it down out of the atmosphere and put it into the biosphere, into lifeforms and into the soil," said Keeley.

It turns out that prairie soil bursting with life and fertility was ideal for agriculture. And the newcomers to the land took notice. Over the first 100 years after the United States expanded into what is now Illinois, and the rest of the Midwest, they pushed out native inhabitants and encouraged white settlers to move in. And with the help of John Deere’s steel plow and other newfangled machines, farmers went to work turning the prairie to farmland.

“By 1900, some estimates say that most of the prairie was already plowed under,” Ellis said.

And how much of that prairie survives today?

“So out of that 21 million acres, around 2,000 acres of high-quality prairie left in Illinois. So yeah, it's mostly gone,” Ellis said.

We know that, in a very short time, this prairie-wetland-savanna-mosaic landscape was almost completely replaced with large-scale agriculture. And while that native ecosystem did not produce quite the surplus of commercial goods as the farmland that replaced it, it did provide many of the ecosystem services, such as carbon capture, that have become necessary to regain in our agriculture today.

So when it comes to reversing agriculture’s carbon footprint, maybe we can look back to that lost prairie for some cues.

The Savanna Institute is one of the organizations working in central Illinois to help farmers do exactly that.

“Agroforestry is any way that you use more trees on purpose on farms,” said Keeley, with the Savanna Institute. “Agro being agriculture and forestry being trees.”

There are hundreds of ways that trees can be a part of farms,” Keeley said. One of those ways is on public view at Allerton Park and Retreat Center outside Monticello, Illinois.

“What we're doing there is pretty unique in central Illinois – an agroforestry strategy called alley cropping. We plant rows of trees in a farm field, pretty widely spaced, and then in between those rows of trees, in the alley between the trees, we continue to grow crops. Corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, pasture, whatever crops you want to grow, vegetables. But it's a way of integrating trees with crops.

“So why does that matter? One farms can just work better when we have trees that do things. So it's a way for farmers to make their farms more profitable. Another reason that agroforestry is, we think really important, is that it's dollar for dollar, and acre for acre, probably the best way that farms can be a climate change solution.

“Things can change, and they can change rapidly and drastically and have. What's the next revolutionary change? And I think it really is looking at how do ecosystems work? And how do we really make that part of the DNA of how our farming systems work? And so that's the big idea is, sure, our landscapes are going to look more beautiful as there's more trees and more pasture and livestock are out in it and people are more involved in the farming. But what is it actually doing? Well, it's making us less reliant on fossil fuels. It's actually helping solve climate change. And it's building the soil so that future generations are inheriting a richer landscape as well.

“There's a researcher and thought-leader named Wes Jackson who talks about the agroecological imagination. Having an eye towards history in the past, and then looking at the present and using that knowledge of history to be able to imagine what the future might look like,” Keeley said.

Can you even imagine?

You can hear Food Trek twice each month on WCBU and WGLT. Or subscribe to the Food Trek podcast.

Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.