Out on the Sand Prairie

They grow more corn in Iowa than anywhere else in the country. They raise more pigs, too, and their hens lay the most eggs. You might laugh at or just ignore Iowa, but it’s our country’s breadbasket. Wipe a state as fertile as Iowa off the map, and the prices of all those staple foods you take for granted at the supermarket would skyrocket –  and you thought Whole Foods
was pricey
. Iowa has more soil types than the Gosselins have kids.

Simply put, Iowa is the Manhattan of farmland. People don’t live there because they couldn’t hack it in the city. They’re there because great farmers are attracted to great land, and Iowa has some great land and some great farmers. I’d like to see a stockbroker run a cornfield. It’s a hard job.

What makes Iowa soil so damn good? Easy. The prairies. The Iowa landscape was dominated by tall grasses and shrubs for thousands of years. About four-fifths of the state, to be exact, ever since the glaciers retreated. On the harsh, windswept plains of Iowa, that’s about all that could survive. Thousands of years of prairie fires bequeathed the soil with rich nutrients, and the prairies hosted a shockingly diverse population of plants, animals, birds, and insects.

But now, only about 0.1% of Iowa’s prairies survive. Yes, you read that right. Not 1%. 0.1%, mostly in untilled fields, forgotten cemeteries, and railroad beds. It’s all farms now, far as the eye can see.

You can thank John Deere for that. The company’s innovative steel plows made large scale farming possible in Iowa back in 1800s, and railroads connected the state to the global market. The state’s population boomed, and the prairie was never the same.

I was lucky enough to find a patch of preserved prairie right outside of my new home in Cedar Falls – the Cedar Hills Sand Prairie. The Nature Conservancy, the organization in charge of the preserve, couldn’t even provide an address. The directions were pre-GPS – north on this road, west on that road.

Still, I found it with little trouble.

The sand prairie was a beautiful, peaceful place. An oasis, if you will. It might not look like much initially, but as you wonder through the knee-high grass, subtle variations of color are revealed – yellows, browns, purples, blues, blacks, and grays. Birds dart across the sky, dragonflies hover over the ground, and animals rustle in a field of ferns.

Yellow was the color of the day. The big, bountiful sun in the clear blue sky. The goldfinches and coneflowers. Only the piercing call of the hawk broke my reverie.

Here are two pictures I took that hopefully capture the scene.

prairie1

prairie2

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