Learning to burn

The guy who has been leading the stewardship effort for the patch of prairie right next to Winfield Village is looking to transition some of the effort to someone who lives here, and I have expressed a willingness to take on some of the stewardship tasks.

This would primarily consist of working to remove non-prairie species, together with using the prairie for education, and advocating for the prairie when other people imagine some other use for the land. But one essential step with maintaining prairie land is occasional burning. I could probably manage the rest of it, but I’m certainly not qualified to do a prairie burn.

To start to remedy that, yesterday I participated in a burn at a small patch of prairie land near Urbana, managed by a guy from Pheasants Forever. I had told him of my interest in learning to manage a burn, so he talked me through what he did as he did it, explaining the thought-process behind where he started and what he burned, and also introduced me to the equipment involved.

The patch of prairie we burned was 1.5 acres, and took a little over an hour to burn.

I neglected to get a picture of myself taken while I was dressed in my Nomex coveralls, but above see a nice picture from the burn itself, and below for an older picture of our own little patch of prairie.

New growing regions less fertile

Prairie plants
Prairie plants

One utterly predictable consequence of climate change is that the price of northern farmland will rise as growing regions shift north.

Tobias Buckell yesterday shared a report that just this sort of price shift is now occurring—interesting to me because this result is not merely predictable: I predicted it my own self, way back when I was in high school.

Global warming was still pretty speculative then (in the 1970s), but people were already talking about the greenhouse effect and trying to figure what the result would be. At the time, I was mainly thinking about the geopolitical implications of  shifting the growing regions north—how things would change if Canada and the (then) Soviet Union were suddenly way more productive of food, while places like the United States, China, and France suddenly less so.

What I discovered, though, was that those northern regions aren’t nearly as fertile as places like Illinois, where 8,000 years of tall grass prairie left an incredibly thick layer of rich soil.

No matter how perfect the climate is, Saskatchewan is not going to produce the bushels per acre of Illinois or Kansas. Their soil is not only less fertile, it’s also much more fragile than the soil of the tall grass prairies. The fertile layer isn’t as deep, so the land must be plowed with greater care, and it will in any case be more quickly depleted.

I’m sure there’s a lot more and better data available now than there was back then, but I doubt if it changes the fundamentals. Shifting growing regions means winners and losers, but it also means less total food production.