Growing Food? How About Grass?

Mike Brake walks his newest tall grass prairie to check how the Big Bluestem and Switchgrass are taking hold. He converted 92 acres of cropland to these conservation grasslands at his farm in Richwood.

“The land was not as productive as others we had,” Brake said. “So, it was a good business decision to go with CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) for the areas that drained poorly, were highly erodible and prone to flooding.”

CREP is one of several conservation programs funded by the federal farm bill. Overall, the program includes 221,900 acres statewide.

In addition to the economic incentive, Brake, a Farm Bureau member, was interested in seeing more wildlife, especially pheasants, on his land in conservation.

“We have a high ring-neck pheasant count in Union County,” said John Rockenbaugh, a Soil and Water Conservation District wildlife specialist. He says the growing number of grasslands provide important habitat for nesting in the spring, brood rearing in the summer and shelter in winter.

Ohio’s farmlands play a vital role in providing habitat for the state’s diverse wildlife, especially considering more and more farm acres—approximately 90,000 a year—are being lost, primarily to development. While protecting his most sensitive land, Brake continues to farm 9,000 acres with his son-in-law.

With CREP cost-share funds, Brake paid for the seed and labor to plant the warm season grasses, which usually take three years to become established. During this time, property owners ward off noxious plants, like Canada thistle and honey locust trees. Once established, maintenance is required to minimize the thatch and eliminate woody trees. Rockenbaugh said Brake had always been a proponent of improving water drainage to make land more productive but, like others in the CREP program, grew tired of fighting drainage. “He would lay tile (drainage pipe) and let the soil dry out, but he eventually recognized the futility for some pieces of property.” He says Brake understood you can’t run tile everywhere. “It just wouldn’t be productive,” he says.

Kelso Wessel, a farmer, retired professor of agriculture economics at Ohio State University and a past board member of the Madison County Farm Bureau, reinforces Brake’s position. He said he often told his students that farmers have two goals: “To look at how you can make your land as profitable as possible” and “To consider how to preserve its beauty and productivity for the next generation.”

Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Galloway.

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