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Lighting a spark for better soil

By Staff | Jul 4, 2015

IOWA LEARNING FARMS representatives Jacqueline Comito, left, program director; and Nathan Stevenson; join Donna Buell to discuss the benefits of using prairie strips on Buell’s farm land presently rented by Andrew Nees.


HOLSTEIN – Once Donna Buell saw what cover crops can do for her fields, she boarded the environmentally friendly farming bandwagon.

While preparing to welcome attendees at a June 23 prairie strips/cover crop field day at one of two of her family farms near Holstein, she stopped momentarily for a quick check of one of the prairie strips in the organic oat field rented by Andrew Nees. The oats are being used as a cover crop.

The Iowa Learning Farms-sponsored field day focused on the planting of a small percentage of a field into deep-rooted perennial prairie plants to reduce soil erosion, reduce water run-off and create pollinator habitats.

The pilot project for this work involves 20 sites originating at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, in Prairie City, said Jacqueline Comito, ILF’s project director.

-Farm News photos by Jolene Stevens DONNA BUELL checks out the prairie strip in her family-owned oat field near Holstein during a June 23 Iowa Learning Farms field day.

“Our goal is to recreate what once was,” Comito said. “We hope we can light a spark in more people to do something to help shore up our soil to be more sustainable and to improve our water quality.

“We’re nowhere close to where we need to be (with regards to these issues) at the present time.”

Buell, a former Spirit Lake attorney and certified public accountant, is returning to her farm roots and is responsible for management of the family farms.

Her sisters, Jean Bahney, of Austin, Texas,and Mary Buell, of Spirit Lake, are also a part of the family operations.

A director of the National Sierra Club, Buell said a progressive and forward policy on food and agriculture is necessary to protect the environment.

She said lessons learned through working with Practical Farmers of Iowa adds support for organic farming, which is the expertise of her tenant, Andrew Nees.

“It’s invaluable to have a young farmer like Andrew who’s enthusiastic about what he’s doing and how he’s doing it,” Buell said.

She said that in the case of the oat crop, oats will dry down quickly and go into the soil with the prairie species plants then emerging later in the summer.

Organic plantings also serve another purpose, she said – making pest control easier.

“Having the tall and short grasses and prairie flowers allows me to do the best I can for birds and butterflies,” Buell said, as a vibrant, healthy community promotes good bugs eating bad bugs.

As the number of older farmers continues to decline, it becomes more important, she said, to have younger farmers on the Buell farm.

“We really need the new ones who realize they need to earn some money in return for their elbow grease and are glad to do so working together,” she said.

Buell said she agrees with the recent environmental message shared last month by Pope Francis regard environmental stewardship of farming.

“I believe we have forgotten we are selves are the dust of the earth and how our bodies are made up of its elements,” Buell said, “that we breathe her air and receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

The pope’s message, she said, “suggests we work to guarantee the protection of the home we share, including the awareness for caring of our ecosystems with far-sightedness.”

Buell said she is hoping to expand the livestock operation, incorporating rotational grazing through longer crop and pasture rotations, using livestock to assist in the process.

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