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Some Kind of Farmer

On a sunny Saturday in early June, Welby Smith gave me a tour of his family farm. "Circling Back to the Farm" in this issue tells the story of this place, which no longer has a house or a barn or any other sign of human habitation. Yet more than 200 acres bear the handiwork of Smith, a new kind of farmer, who is growing native plants to restore an almost lost and forgotten landscape. Now in his 13 th year of ecological restoration of oak savanna and prairie, Smith is seeing signs of success for what he once called his "quixotic plan."

As we drive the gravel road that winds around the west side of the farm, I see suburban-style houses with large lawns. It strikes me that these recent settlers have been attracted here by the pastoral setting. The rolling grasslands, wetlands, and woods of the Smith place lend rural character to the neighborhood. Without this ecological farmer in their midst, these neighbors would likely have a vista of more houses. (They live in the Anoka sand plain, an area with the second fastest-growing population in the state.)

Everyone has a stake in the Smith farm and other natural ecosystems. And if you look, you just might find a way to become a land steward, working with nature and cultivating a relationship to a particular place.

One place to look is Wild River State Park. There, naturalist Dave Crawford and hundreds of volunteers are also working on a long-term project to restore native prairie and oak savanna. In 1993 Crawford began training volunteers to gather and sow seeds of prairie plants. The first year, the volunteers collected modest quantities of about 20 species. In fall 2008, they gathered 181 pounds of seeds from 60 species of grasses and forbs (broad-leaved plants), all for sowing within the park's 1,400 acres of oak savanna and prairie. Volunteers (families, students, campers, and park visitors of all ages) have a chance to see how land managers decide what to grow, prepare a site for planting, and tend it.

In 2000, the Prairie Care Project began enlisting dedicated volunteers to take care of particular species. Today 30 stewards watch over 45 prairie plant species. Stewards begin by finding the places where their assigned species grow in the park. Then, like farmers making almanac notes, they observe and document when the plants bloom and when they start producing seed. They also record seed harvest dates and total weights.

While Crawford was telling me about the project outside the visitor center, a man in a baseball hat, khaki shorts, and T-shirt stopped to ask which seeds he should collect that afternoon. Crawford asked him to check for ripe seeds of Canada rye, prairie cordgrass, switchgrass, coreopsis, and silky prairie clover. A volunteer since 1998 and now a species steward, Dan Carlson seemed to smile more broadly each time Crawford named another species to collect.

"Dan does phenomenal work," Crawford later told me. "He spends hours out here. He specializes in some of the most mind-numbing seed to collect -- the smallest asters and goldenrod. The price of some is $50 per ounce, and he brings in 3 pounds after collecting a good chunk of the day. Once he gets started collecting, I don't think you could pry him away. "The park is really Dan's home."

Park staff also welcome volunteers who commit to working for a single hour or day, Crawford says. More than 200 prairie species are present in the park, and double the current number of volunteers would still have plenty to do. In fact, Crawford recently decided to retire after 19 years as park naturalist and join the ranks of volunteers.

Like Welby Smith, Dave Crawford and his park cohorts are practicing a new kind of agriculture. By replanting native species, removing invasive plants, and reintroducing fire to once-wild ecosystems, all are trying to rebuild biotic communities. In doing such restorative work, some are also finding a place to call home.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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