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Kerry Given 's Profile
Kerry Given
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Nebraska, United States
Climate Zone:
Cold Temperate

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Kamiah Permaculture Institute Permaculture and Resilience Initiative - Detroit Food Forests for Pine Ridge Reservation Milkwood Zaytuna Farm, The home of the permaculture Research Institute
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Prairie Permaculture

Posted by Kerry Given about 12 years ago

A permaculture newbie's musings on permaculture in a grassland ecosystem

Since learning about permaculture about three years ago, one of the most interesting questions for me has been how to adapt permaculture principles to a region where the natural climax ecosystem isn't forest but grassland.

Tallgrass prairie restoration has been a personal passion of mine for many years, so I sometimes shudder reading praise of the edge effect. For 15 years, "edge" to me has meant the spot where exotic grasses such as brome launch their invasions of my prairie. Brome is cool season grass and most native grasses are warm season, so if it is not regularly mowed or grazed during its growing season, brome can effectively shade out native grasses and wildflowers in spring, reducing the diversity and health of the prairie ecosystem.

Edge is also the enemy of native grassland birds, many of whom nest on the ground and use a needle-in-a-haystack approach to avoiding predation. Grassland birds equate trees and shrubs with predators, and few will nest in a grassland smaller than 40 acres in size. For a truly diverse and representative sampling, you need at least 100 acres, and to attract the species most sensitive to habitat fragmentation, studies have found that you still have only a 50% chance of seeing them at 250 acres! With 99% of the tallgrass prairie plowed under and converted to cropland (mainly corn and soy), you can probably imagine the shocking decline of grassland birds in the United States. Populations of some grassland songbirds are declining at a rate of up to 10% annually, others have declined up to 95% in 25 years.

Permaculture is infinitely more sustainable than the endless industrial monocultures currently covering the tallgrass region, but the problem of scale seems a serious one to me on several levels. The native flora and small fauna of prairies can't replace the multi-functional usefulness of trees and shrubs on as efficient a scale. With good design and planning, you can grow a productive forest garden in a suburban backyard. In order to gain an equivalent supply of food, energy, and shelter from a prairie, you'd pretty much need a bison. Bison are naturally migratory and do best on pastures of 5000 acres or more. (They can be raised successfully on much less, but will behave more like cattle in their grazing patterns, which is not as beneficial for prairie health and biodiversity.)

Another factor is the importance of fire to the prairie ecosystem. The tallgrass prairie is believed to have burned about every 3-4 years, some fires set by lighting, others by humans trying to attract bison and other grazing animals to the first flush of new growth. The fires converted 20-25% percent of grass biomass to charcoal, creating extraordinarily carbon-rich and fertile soils, but like bison, fire is poorly suited to suburbs and requires knowledgeable management even in larger tracts of land to avoid creating the raging 20 foot walls of flame that so terrified early European settlers to the plains.

For these reasons, I think a true prairie permaculture system that upholds the principles of Earth Care as well as People Care and Fair Share might require the creation of some form of cooperative to be capable of acquiring the scale of land required to live sustainably on the prairies. They would probably have to be designed around some central village like the Pawnee, Mandan, and other (primarily) sedentary tribes of the Plains, rather than the scattered homesteads common in the prairie region today. This could limit the use of trees and shrubs such as chokecherries and burr oak to one small area while leaving large tracts free of woody plants to provide habitat for grassland birds, bison, and other native species.

Such a system could even be combined with the Buffalo Commons idea proposed by Frank and Deborah Popper to develop corridors connecting prairie permaculture communities, public lands, and sympathetic private landhandholders in order to ultimately re-open the ancient migratory paths of the bison and pronghorn.

As mentioned on my profile, I have not yet been able to take a Permaculture Design Course, nor am I a professional in the field of habitat restoration or wildlife biology, so these musings are based only on my own self study of permaculture and prairie ecosystems. I would love to hear the thoughts, ideas, and criticisms of more qualified individuals.

Comments (4)

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Vance Barritt
Vance Barritt : Good article!

I have thought of this as well - turning the prairie into forest seems like a good idea, but should be practiced on already altered property only. Native grassland is in desperate need of preserving, and with high grain prices, it is under more threat than ever. I'm at the edge of the original prairie/forest edge, but since settlement, trees have grown into most native areas, without the pressures from fire and bison. We try to replicate the bison with rotational grazing, and I'm working on the fire (harvesting the trees for biomass heat- giving value to 'native' stands that may otherwise be bulldozed for crops)

As far as altering the landscape by planting trees - it should be done thoughtfully, and this article gives fuel for that thought :)
Posted about 12 years ago

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Andrew Ramponi
Andrew Ramponi : Kerry, I can't really comment on your thoughts on prairie permaculture, but it sounds as though you've done a whole lot of thinking towards a PDC already.

If you haven't come acroos the Agroinnovations Podcast you might find some of the episodes relevant for your environment. This one is on pasture cropping. http://agroinnovations.com/index.php/en_us/multimedia/blogs/podcast/2010/07/episode-98-pasture-cropping/

Posted about 12 years ago

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Kerry Given
Kerry Given : Vance - Thanks for your comment! Chris Helzer, who works with the Nature Conservancy here in Nebraska, recommends a system called patch-burn grazing that tries to duplicate the natural grazing patterns of bison more closely in a smaller area. I have neither the livestock nor the land to experiment with it myself, but it sounds like a promising technique for smaller scale properties. If you're trying to restore a mix of grassland and forest on your property, it might be worth looking into in more detail.

Andrew - Thanks for the rec! I've read a little bit about pasture cropping on the main permaculture.org.au website and think it's a very clever idea and certainly far better for the soil than annual tilling! I haven't heard of anyone in the US trying it yet, but it will be really interesting to see how it goes.
Posted about 12 years ago

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David Muhl
David Muhl : Kerry, you sure have put a lot of thought into this. I found myself very engaged by your writings, and it would be great to see you publish materials in newspapers and magazines so that those in your bioregion can ponder such things as well. No time like the present!

That aside, I looked at one map of nebraska which located you within tall grass prairie, yet it sounds (from your description) like more of a transitional area, similar to what's listed in wikipedia as "Upper Midwest Forest-Savanna Transition" (some maps aren't always that accurate). This would be characterized as an "ecotone," as opposed to an "edge" which is much smaller in scale. You did mention scale, and I think this will be a very important distinction for you that will come up repeatedly as you move forward in your work. I believe you are right that grassland birds (I'm no expert) would decrease in number as you move closer to treeline, and creating a tree-filled settlement in the middle of "pure" prairie would have the same effect. Then again, if your settlement is in the transition zone, it probably wouldn't make as much of a difference from a predation standpoint...it's already occurring there. There would obviously be a great deal of variables to consider if you were to try and predetermine all human settlement locations at the bioregional scale, but it sounds like you're on the right track in considering such things as bison migrational corridors (or rotational grazing at a smaller scale), and prescribed burns (easier to coordinate between clustered village-type settlements than scattered farmhouses). I'm new to the pasture cropping concept, but that definitely sounds like a great zone 4 idea which could be tried around the prairie edge (assuming you can keep those big bison herds away at key times)!
Posted about 12 years ago

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