Prairie STRIPS photo by Omar de Kok-Mercado

As an organizer of the FIRST Earth Day, in 1970, I celebrate the 50th anniversary. Yes, I mean FIRST. We University of Michigan students held our “Give Earth a Chance!” rallies early, because we were going to be on spring break on April 22.

Earth Day succeeded! Visionaries and activists demanding a better world saw some dramatic accomplishments. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) later in 1970. The U. S. banned the use of DDT, which has led to the amazing comeback of bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Other environmental legislation brought the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers protection, the Wilderness Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the cleanup of hazardous waste sites under the Superfund law. Lead has been banned from gasoline, paint, and other uses that once spread the toxin through the environment.

Iowa now gets about 40% of its electricity from wind turbines, instead of coal-fired plants. Many homeowners and farmers have installed solar panels.

Iowa established Protected Water Areas along some of our streams.

We adopted the state Groundwater Protection Act, which taxes pesticides to provide funds to monitor and protect Iowa waters from farm chemicals.

But we don’t have to stop there! Imagine an Iowa where farming practices transform our landscape from the corn and soybean monocultures and hog confinements of today into reconnected parcels of soil-building prairie, and stream corridors linking restored woodlands. Imagine farms as part of the ecosystem – as a source of pride to the farmer.

“The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself,” wrote Burlington, Iowa, native Aldo Leopold, whose the 1949 conservation book, “A Sand County Almanac,” was the “Bible” for many of us on the FIRST Earth day. He often described humans as just a part of a larger, Earthly community.

What?! Could that “community” include Indiangrass, big bluestem, compass plant, bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and coneflowers growing in crop fields? Pollinators buzzing and songbirds nesting alongside corn and soybeans? Yes! Permanent prairie strips planted in just 10% of a field can reduce erosion and nutrient loss 85 to 95 per cent, Iowa State University researchers have found.

And how about alternative crops? Forty per cent of our corn acres had been going to make ethanol – until demand collapsed with the COVID-19 crisis. Who knows if that market will rebound? So let’s instead start planting some Kernza.  The Land Institute in Kansas has been breeding that perennial wheatgrass, which promises nutritional grain harvested after minimal inputs. The experiment is slowly catching on, with some test markets of snack bars and cereal.

Iowans also now have rules in place allowing them to grow industrial hemp.

The U. S. uses large quantities of fiber, seed, and oil from hemp – most of which we have to import from Canada. Let’s grow more here – as we did for the war effort in the 1940s.

And there’s always crop rotation. Younger farmers probably don’t remember the corn-soybeans-oats-hay rotation we followed on the farm of my youth. But those smaller, diverse fields and pastures provided habitat for pheasants, as well as forage for livestock. And Iowa State University research suggests going back to that rotation could make farmers as much, if not more, profit than today’s typical corn and soybean monocultures.

Crop rotation incorporating livestock puts animals back on the land, and out of confinements. The animals may be healthier, and their manure quickly gets converted to fertilizer and organic matter. That’s a welcome contrast with confinement sewage pits, where waste is held as a toxic soup emitting poisonous gases.

These and other “regenerative agriculture” practices are gaining acceptance. They could, and should, help make American farms a healthy part of a working community.

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us,” Aldo Leopold observed. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

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