STRIPS 10 Year Anniversary

This year marks a 10-year anniversary of the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project. Iowa State University with the help from the Leopold Center for Sustianable Agriculture and several other partners started the STRIPS project in 2007 at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Now there are 27 sites which include private farms, five ISU Research and Demonstration farms, Des Moines Water Works and the Eastern Iowa Airport near Cedar Rapids.

The main goal of the project is to improve ecosystem services to farmland by adding a small amount of native, perennial habitat (i.e. prairie) back to farmland. Results from these first ten years were published this October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,“Prairie Strips Improve Biodiversity and the Delivery of Multiple Ecosystem Services from Corn-soybean Cropland”. The 15 authors include an Iowa farmer, members of national USDA laboratories, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Iowa State University faculty, including six GPSA members. This article describes how replacing as little as 10% of a crop field to prairie can reduce nutrient loss, soil erosion while increasing bird and pollinator abundance. The project team is communicating these results to farmers, facilitating the planting of prairie strips on commercial farms throughout Iowa. Adoption of this practice can be a significant step towards addressing some of the ecological problems associated with conventional farming.

In honor of this anniversary and publication, we acknowledge all the GPSA faculty (8) and students who worked on various aspects of this project. To date, four students have completed degrees through GPSA while conducting research through the STRIPS project: Sara Hirsh, Jose Gutierrez Lopez, Rachael Cox and Drake Larsen. Below, we recap conversations with Rachael and Sarah reflecting upon their work with STRIPS and how it influenced what they are doing now.

Rachel Cox (M.S.’12 in Crop Production and Physiology and NREM, with minor in Sustainable Agriculture) - “I currently live in Mexico City and run a social and environmental company that works in Guatemala, Mexico, and the USA. Since I left grad school and the STRIPS project I have been working on soil conservation, food security and international development projects in Mexico, Guatemala, and Rwanda. In the soil conservation projects I have worked on, the lessons learned from STRIPS have been highly valuable in informing recommendations to farmers and research designs that I have led. In my current role as CEO and co-founder of EarthEmpower, I am a few steps removed from environmental conservation decision making in the field, but I am responsible for guiding conservation programatic design for the company.”

Sarah Hirsh (M.S.’12 in Sustainable Agriculture and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) - “A New York Times article that I read back in 2009 really struck a chord with me. It talked about the dying science of taxonomy in our society, about how the Tzeltal Maya of Mexico can name 30 plant species by age 2 and 100 by age 4. It talked about how when we don’t know species by name, we diminish their existence, and how this disconnect is part of what allows us to be living care-free through a massive species extinction. I read this article just as I was beginning my Masters research on the STRIPS project. The project was investigating the multifaceted benefits of planting 10-20% of a corn/soybean field into native prairie strips. My job for 3 summers was to recognize and record the 100+ different species that grew in these prairie strips, which were a stark contrast to the surrounding monoculture corn and soybean fields.

The STRIPS project taught me a lot; for example it convinced me that "nature" and farmland don't have to compete, that there are mutual benefits to this "mixed landscape". But I think my work on the STRIPS project most influenced me by changing how I view my surroundings. By learning how to name and recognize the plant diversity in those strips, I learned how to be more conscious and aware of my environment, whether that be through naming plant species, through noticing patterns within a cropfield indicative of nutrient deficiencies, or noticing earthworm castings that indicate a healthy soil.

I went on to work for University of Arkansas Extension for a couple of years, and am now finishing up my PhD in Soil Science at University of Maryland, working to develop and implement cover crop systems that capture deep soil N.”

And the work continues, with current GPSA students involved with STRIPS project. Lydia English came to ISU this fall for a master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture, and is hoping to research prairie systems. Here is what she says about her research interests: “I chose to attend Iowa State and get involved in the STRIPs project because I was looking for ways to integrate two interests of mine – prairie systems and farming. The STRIPS project is not only the physical marriage of those two systems, but also provides farmers with many benefits, such as soil retention and reduced runoff, without taking much land out of production. My research within the STRIPS team will be looking at plant biodiversity across many of our private landowner field sites. We know that STRIPS add floral diversity to the farming landscape, but I’m interested in looking deeper at whether certain factors influence the amount and distribution of native species. I’m hoping to continue working at the interface between agriculture and biodiversity and I’m looking forward to connecting with farmers along the way. I’m excited to be involved in such a robust, interdisciplinary, and supportive project like STRIPS. “