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Photo of farm.

Circling Back to the Farm

More than a century after his family broke sod to cultivate crops, a botanist is trying another kind of agriculture.

By Kathleen Weflen

On Fridays from spring through fall, when the weather was fine, 12-year-old Welby Smith would grab his sleeping bag, fishing gear, some sandwiches, and water and head for the woods. His parents would drive him 50 miles west of the Twin Cities to the family farm. They'd drop their son on the back 40 acres of virgin oak forest, and say good-bye until Sunday evening when they'd return for him.

It was the early 1960s, before cell phones, but Smith recalls only one cold weekend when he wished he could call for an early ride home. Like a lone boy scout in the wilderness, he pitched his tent and explored the rolling terrain, fishing for bass and panfish in the Clearwater River and identifying trees and shrubs.

Video of Welby Smith

Passion for plants

See an excerpt from Plant Life of Minnesota.

In a sense, Smith was following in his father's footsteps. For a 4-H project in the 1930s, his father identified every tree species on the farm. He could recall the locations where each grew in the forest, so decades later he could say that a hackberry tree had sprouted in a new place and that red maples found by his son were new to the woods.

Today, Welby Smith is a university-educated botanist with a plant press -- a stack of 12-by-17-inch cardboard sheets clamped between plywood -- ever ready in the trunk of his green Honda Accord. Since he began working for the Department of Natural Resources in 1978, Smith has collected and pressed more than 30,000 plant specimens for the University of Minnesota herbarium. A founding member of the Minnesota Native Plant Society, he has written definitive books on the state's native trees and shrubs and its wild orchids.

Almost every weekend, Smith drives west to the 19th-century farm that he and his brother and sister inherited. Wearing blue jeans, T-shirt, and high-top basketball shoes, he wanders the same 40-acre woods, which he now knows is a mesic (moderately moist) oak forest. And Smith checks on the progress of what is arguably his most ambitious project: transforming 250 acres of cropland back into the natural ecosystem that his great-grandfather found when he homesteaded here in 1858.

Like his forebears, Smith is practicing agriculture, but he is growing native vegetation. He is applying art and science to a grand experiment of restoring a native plant community. Reviewing the notes from the original presettlement land survey, Smith found "it was basically savanna, barrens with oak and aspen, and miles and miles of brambles, a native shrub -- a perfect description of the Anoka sand plain." When the Mississippi River drained a receding glacier some 10,000 years ago, it deposited this vast outwash of sand, which stretches from St. Cloud to North Branch in the northeastern Twin Cities area.

Historically, upland prairie and oak savanna characterized the Anoka sand plain. Oak savanna, where prairie meets forest, is now the rarest of Minnesota's native landscapes. Prior to European settlement, oak savanna covered 10 percent of the land in Minnesota. Today, less than one-tenth of 1 percent remains. Native prairies too have diminished to a tiny fraction of their once expansive land cover.

With his experiment, Smith hopes to discover if this patch of sandy earth, like a rundown house, can be restored. And he wants to see if it can produce income -- perhaps from a crop of native seeds or cellulosic fuel. Like any farmer, Smith will need to find a way to make his agriculture self-sustaining. And to the extent he succeeds, he could set an example for other landowners to follow.

Turtles and Cranes.

Standing on a rise in a field among small oaks and aspens, Smith points out a pocket of wetlands ringed with sedges, bulrushes, and cattails. Wetland complexes are characteristic of the Anoka sand plain. So are Blanding's turtles and sandhill cranes, both of which Smith has seen nesting here.

Though the wetlands persist on the farm, these young oaks and aspens did not sprout here on their own. They were planted as part of a plan Smith devised with the DNR Forest Stewardship Program, which assists landowners with woods of 20 acres or more. In 1996 Smith hired a crew to help him hand-plant 6,000 oaks and 500 aspens purchased from the DNR state forest nursery at Badoura. As expected, some of the trees did not survive, so in 2000 Smith put in another 2,000 bur oaks and northern pin oaks. He has also planted native plum and chokecherry.

Though Smith may be the state's top expert on tree communities, he must wait to see how his plantings grow -- an observer's role familiar to any farmer. The aspens have proven to be a surprise success. After about eight years, the spindly trees appeared to be dying. Then suckers sprouted and flourished, growing straight and true in groves 10 feet across. "They're just looking glorious," Smith says, "better than I could have hoped for or imagined in 30 years."

On the other hand, he looks at a row of oaks and notes, "This is their 12th year, and this is about how they looked when I put them in." Not much bigger than tall walking sticks, they seem stunted. Insects defoliate them in spring, deer nip their branches in winter, and pocket gophers go after their roots. But Smith is not worried. The majority of the growth is not visible, he says; the roots spread 10 feet across and reach down 20 feet.

When the trees were newly planted, Smith drove out from St. Paul on weekends to cut back the weeds around them, but he later realized his effort was "more or less a gesture." Likewise, he gave up controlling gophers.

"I actually like the gophers," he says, because this keystone species provides a food base in the oak-aspen ecosystem. The plains pocket gopher pushes up mounds of bare soil. The mounds are prime places for bull snakes (aka gopher snakes) to bask in the sun and to catch gophers. Badgers also help keep the local gopher population in check.

Prairie Crop.

"Out of all the fields, this has always been the worst," says Smith, walking across corn stubble and abundant weeds growing in sandy soil. "My recollection is that my grandfather never liked farming this field. As soon as my dad could, he put it into set aside." Under that 1970s federal program for retiring marginal farmland, the field was planted in brome, a nonnative perennial grass, because the value of native plants for wildlife had yet to be recognized. When the set-aside program ran out in the 1990s, Smith's father rented the field to a farmer who planted corn.

It's early June, and mostly nonnative plants have sprouted after a cool spring. But soon these weeds will be competing with the 61 native species planted here in 2007. When Smith enrolled this acreage in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, he hired Prairie Restorations, Inc. to drill in 13 species of native grasses and broadcast 30 species of forbs on 250 acres. To pay for the $86,000 "Cadillac planting," Smith spent $20,000 in savings and took out a loan for the remainder. He has calculated that 10 years of annual payments from CRP will pay off the loan.

To mimic the natural cycles that created and maintained oak savanna, Smith plans to begin doing periodic burns of the prairie plantings. A layer of cork beneath the bark will protect the oaks from fire. Spring burning will discourage early sprouting of nonnative plants. The burned plant material will add nutrients to the soil. And the charred soil will warm quickly, encouraging more vigorous growth of native species.

On the Horizon.

On Smith's land across the road, black-eyed Susans bloom among Indiangrass, big bluestem, and other native grasses. Vesper sparrows forage in the field. Smith points out two smokestacks of a power plant on the horizon. He imagines that some day the coal-fired plant could switch to burning biomass from prairie forbs and grasses. By the time his CRP contract ends in 2017, he could have a well-established crop ready for harvest as cellulosic fuel.

Smith estimates his prairie has the potential to produce thousands of tons of hay without the need to reseed or amend the soil. What's more, this low-input perennial crop captures carbon, a major contributor to climate change. The soil and deep roots could sequester carbon for a hundred years.

Smith envisions the benefits of farmers growing native vegetation across a larger landscape to produce renewable energy. "If people see this and the sense it makes," he says, "it might get their attention." Meanwhile, with his eye on this potential prize, Smith is cultivating patience. A great crested flycatcher calls from an oak grove, which once sheltered the homestead's log cabin, then a brick home, and finally the wood-frame farmhouse where Smith's father was born. Smith counts himself lucky because his brother and sister are not clamoring to sell the farm. "I'm trying to manage my expectations," he says. "None of the family has expected to make money off this land because it never proved sufficient for growing cash crops to support a family."

Circling Back.

Smith returns to the back 40 acres to tour his forest. Light filters down through a fresh, green canopy of three-story-tall aspens and oaks. The big, straight trees are all merchantable timber, Smith says. But he won't be selling them. Instead, he hopes to find a way to protect this virgin forest, perhaps with a conservation easement or designation as a scientific and natural area.

Thick mats of leaves crunch underfoot as Smith meanders among ironwood, chokecherry, black cherry, hackberry, big-toothed aspen, red oak, northern pin oak, and bur oak. Unlike prairie, this forest requires no fire. It renews itself by decomposing fallen leaves and wood fiber.

Moss-covered deadfalls litter the forest floor. Blue-spotted salamanders live and breed under these logs. "A healthy forest needs dead and dying trees," he says. When tidy landowners clear away woody debris, they are also taking away habitat for all kinds of critters.

Wood fern, lady fern, grape fern. Star sedge, Carex radiata. Carex sprengelii. Smith quietly speaks the common and Latin names of ferns and sedges. As he nears the edge of the woods, he circles back to identify a few more plants. He confesses that looking for more species gives him a reason to stay.

"This is a self-perpetuating forest," he says, as a kind of parting thought. "There is nothing a person can do to improve it."

Could this classic oak forest become a seed source for generating similar stands? A new forest would take a century to develop, but in natural history that is not long. As a society and as individuals, Smith says, we must decide what kind of landscape we intend to perpetuate.

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