Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

Prescribed Fires: Burning Iowa’s Prairies

Our final student intern guest blogger of the summer is Samuel Waite. During the academic year, Sam is a student at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, where he is studying Natural Resource Management. We were thrilled to have him spend the summer with us in Ames, working as an intern with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs.

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Should Iowa’s prairies burn? Do they deserve to be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash? I say yes, they should. Now, that may seem like just the thing that you wouldn’t want to happen in the remnants of prairies past, but it is completely necessary. Many think fires are bad no matter what the reason; they cause destruction, harm, and even death. That may be so, but fires that are controlled and used with the intent to improve natural areas are completely different. They help create life anew, enrich the soil, and provide essential functionality to wildlife.

Prescribed fires, controlled burns, or whatever you may call them, are a very important element in managing a tall or short grass prairie ecosystem. When the prairie was at its prime, covering about 99.9% of Iowa, fires were caused by lightning strikes. There were no prescribed burns, just the fire and the prairie. Native American tribes living in or near the prairies would set them alight for various reasons as well, whether it be to help with a growing season for their crops, or to drive wild game animals from the grasses.

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

The importance of prescribed fires is seen after the fire has done its job. I have seen first-hand how the native prairie plants return with new vigor, held nutrients are put directly into the soil from the ashes of previous vegetation, and invasive or non-prairie species are eradicated once again. The prairie itself is the goal of the prescribed fires. It provides necessary habitat for a wide array of animals, insects, birds, and even reptiles, and without the prairie in its native form all of those creatures would be lost to the world.

Today, various organizations use prescribed burns for their natural areas management plans. As for myself, it was for my Fire Management class at Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa. I took part in conducting three separate prescribed burns at two locations: Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa and Hickory Hills Park in LaPorte City, Iowa. I had various roles in each fire, but none without their importance in the overall scheme of the burns.

For example, the pictures you see are of two prescribed burns that I was a part of. I am shown in the various stages of the burn, with my responsibility being to light and control the direction of the fires. I am using a tool called a drip-torch to do so. The drip-torch is a canister that is filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline fuels and has a tube with a wick attached to the end that acts as the delivery method for the fuel mix. Using the drip-torch, I was able to walk slowly enough to light a good fire and not waste the fuel.

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

Wildlife are not the only ones who benefit from a healthy, newly burned prairie. Humans can benefit from it in other ways. Burning a prairie will remove any of the piled up debris from dead vegetation, which would otherwise make an accidental or uncontrolled fire more volatile. The prairie vegetation also acts as a natural water filter as well. The dense vegetation will slow the passage of water, allowing the water to deposit much of the sediment it may have been carrying. The water will then be able to infiltrate into the soil, so that the vegetation may take in what it needs, then the soil will filter out any pollution that may have been present as well.

I have seen the benefits of a prescribed burn, but on the other hand, I also see the consequences of not burning. Some prairies are overrun by invasive species, small and large trees, and have so much debris covering up every available inch. Seeing these prairies, I always wonder if they are being managed responsibly. I firmly believe that management practices, including prescribed burns, are now a vital component of any natural area.

The fires  at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

The fires at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

Fully burned prairie

Fully burned prairie

If a healthy prairie is important, with its many benefits to wildlife and humans alike, then the fires used to perpetuate the prairies are equally as important. The only way to continuously restore the prairie remnants we have in Iowa today is through controlled burns. Hopefully, I will continue to implement these fires myself, for years to come. So, yes, Iowa’s prairies must burn, and they must be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash.

Sam Waite