111008 corn harvest

All across Illinois, on a perfect Indian summer day, farmers become ship captains – piloting massive, half million dollar combines across their ocean-sized fields. At Midewin, we, too, are farmers, but of a more antiquarian nature.

We reap what we have sown by hand. And we may gather far less in volume than our big ag counterparts, but we leave them in the dust when it comes to sheer biodiversity.

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Prior to settlement, there were at least 851 different species of plants native to Illinois. Today, 80 percent of the Prairie State is blanketed largely by only two plant species: soybeans and corn. In 2008, Illinois farmers produced 428 million bushels of soybeans and 1.5 billion bushels of corn, generating nearly $7 billion in revenues.

Compared to that, what value is there in the few dozen bags of native prairie seed we managed to collect today?

Well, for all practical purposes, corn and soybean fields are ecological deserts. They may appear green and lush. But due to a lethal combination of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, nothing much lives on 80 percent of Illinois land except corn and soybeans. That’s it. No bugs. No other plants. Corn fields represent “the poorest bird habitat in the state” according to Illinois Birds: A Century of Change and soybean fields aren’t much better.

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Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ear of corn and soy milk is my beverage of choice for my morning oatmeal. But what I love more is the expanding number of acres under active restoration at Midewin. Two thousand acres and counting. That’s more tallgrass prairie than you’ll find in any one place in the Prairie State. In any one place practically anywhere. And with those recovering acres are more insects, herps, mammals and birds – especially rare grassland birds – than you can count. (Although we do count them to carefully monitor the progress of our restorations.)

111008 stiff goldenrodIn order to restore the rest of Midewin’s 20,000 total acres, we collect seed. Dozens of different kinds today. More than a hundred different kinds over the course of the season. Some seeds – like stiff goldenrod – strip off in your hand like “buddah.” Others – like compass plant – are buried deep within protective husks and require clipping clusters of entire stems.

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After the weather turns cold, we’ll head indoors and clean the seed, removing all the husks and fluff and duff and whatnot. But today, we are deeply content to be outdoors among friends. In the cool air and warm sun. Humble farmers for a future filled with wildflowers, wild birds and all the bounty of the tallgrass prairie.

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