Pella Chronicle

February 18, 2011

Benedict highlights importance of Prairie Biomas Project

Megan Card
The Chronicle

Pella — In a state that was once 85 percent tall-grass prairie, Iowa’s foremost habitat has fallen to a staggering 1/10 of one percent of its original production. While the concerns of the country have fallen to other such matters in the world, one Central College professor is looking to bring back awareness, as well as 350 plots, of tall-grass prairie.

Russ Benedict, associate professor of biology at Central, calls himself a prairie lover since high school. After performing research projects with bats and shrews, Benedict turned his attention to what he now calls the Prairie Biomass Project. In a collaboration to integrate nature and prairie with conservation, Benedict is in the process of turning 17 acres into 350 plots of 64 different plant species that will possibly serve as research a site to improve Midwestern agriculture and the environment.

“I loved my shrews, but one day it bound on me. How can I keep researching these animals if their habitats are continually declining? That is where the Prairie Biomass Project started from. It is so hard to protect prairies, because they create what we want, and we want rich soil. So, creating this Biomass Project isn’t just about preserving prairies, it’s about improving agriculture as well,” Benedict said.

What was needed for the Biomass Project to make a difference was to find the common ground between prairie growth and the Midwestern agriculture that so readily relies on the prairie’s fertile soil. Benedict made this point quite clear during his presentation at Second Reformed Church, Feb. 8, where he gave a lecture entitled “The Prairie Biomass Project: Benefiting Prairies and Agriculture,” and answered questions asked by the public who attended. Benedict first addressed the intersection of three problems: tall-grass prairie is one of the most critically endangered ecosystems on earth, global warming is an undeniable reality and the economic impacts of rising fuel costs are being felt across the nation, especially from foreign sources.

“After listening to Russ, I think it really opened a lot of our eyes in the community to see what is going on around us and around the world. This isn’t just an issue being brought up only in Iowa, but I am absolutely delighted to see the work Russ and everyone at Central College is doing for the Biomass Project,” said lecture attendee, Barbara Butler.

Benedict’s main point of the night seemed to be that if biomass is increased, it can be used for multiple purposes, such as producing ethanol and even electricity. The prairie plantings could be grown on poor soils and could require little to no water, herbicides, etc. This would eliminate large amounts of fuel needed to maintain plantings and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released. Thus lies the primary goals of the Prairie Biomass Project. The potential rides high for the project, which will be done at Central’s Carlson-Kuyper Field Station and other surrounding sites. Though no planting has occurred yet, the plans are in full swing to develop 350 plots measuring nine meters a side, with each plot consisting of different mixes of plants, both native and non-native to Iowa.

“I think it is all so exciting. For someone like myself, who grew up on a farm, it is impressive to see someone take the time to work on improving our environment and its relationship with local agriculture. He should be encouraged in his work, and I think it is just a terrific project to allow students to be involved in,” said Fran DeJong, who was also in attendance for Benedict’s lecture.

Additionally, Benedict hopes that the Biomass Project will be used not only as a research site, but a demonstration site for farmers, agricultural leaders, business men and even school children.    

“In ten, twenty years, a part from just wanting the project to still be actively running, I would like to see valuable information. By and by, the information will come, and my hope is that it creates a snowball effect that could one day affect or change issues in our nation today,” said Benedict.

Biomass Project gifted land, funding

Central College Board of Trustees member Stan Poortinga and wife Gayle, and trustee emeritus Mark De Cook ‘64 and wife Kay Kuyper De Cook ‘63, donated 17 acres of land near the Carlson-Kuyper Field Station. The land will be used for the Prairie Biomass

Project, headed by Russ Benedict, associate professor of biology. The property was formerly farmland taken out of production, but the poor soil makes it ideal for the Biomass Project.

The project aims to regain the prairie which covered 85 percent of Iowa. Today, 99.9 percent of prairie has been destroyed in the state with an overall continental loss of 96 percent. Using 350 plots, Benedict plans to plant mixes of 64 different species to determine the best mix and method of planting and harvesting. The goal is to use the project to produce biomass for energy, provide habitats for plants and animals and decrease soil erosion.

“We hope to become leaders in the Midwest in encouraging the use of native prairie plants for agricultural use,” said Benedict.

The research site will also be used as a demonstration area for farmers, agricultural leaders and businesses. Students will be involved in every phase of the project, from designing and analyzing research to the physical management of the research site to even giving presentations to the public.

The project was chosen to be the recipient of a one-time mission gift of $5,000 from the Second Reformed Church.

“We want to be part of taking care of creation, through the restoration of habitat as well as seeking alternative energy sources,” said Pastor Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell.

Many science alumni have also donated money to the project, as well as the lobbying firm that represents Central College, the Normandy Group.

“With our work, the Midwest may look different in the future,” Benedict said. “Millions of acres that can’t be farmed could be planted with diverse prairie mixes. These plantings could be harvested to produce fuel and prairie plants and animals may rebound in numbers.”