Students lend hand in prairie project

TALLGRASS PRAIRIE CENTER/Courtesy Photo

ELIZABETH KELSEY, News Editor

In collaboration with the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center, students from Union High School science teacher Craig Hemsath’s class participated in a prairie re-seeding project on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at the Irvine Prairie.

The prairie, dedicated in May of 2018, is a 77-acre prairie-in-progress located on the farm of Cathy Irvine of Dysart, which she donated in memory of her late husband David.

“It was her wish to turn this into a tallgrass prairie for the benefit of the community, so children could have a sense of what Iowa used to look like,” said Laura Jackson, TPC director.

The TPC has a five-year plan in place to restore the prairie to natural conditions by planting native prairie plants and regionally appropriate seed sources. The planting process, according to Jackson, is typically carried out using tractors, native seed drills and other mechanized methods which maximize productivity and encourage a diverse mixing of vegetation. However, with a specific 2-acre area of the land, the bulk-harvested seed that the TPC wanted to plant required a more traditional “broadcast” method, typically sown by hand or with a broadcast spreader.

“We had a broadcast spreader that we were going to use, and we brought it all the way out there this spring, and got it started, and it broke down,” Jackson said. “So then we had to figure out a different way to do this planting.”

The broken spreader presented an opportunity for high school students to learn about the prairie by hand-sowing the seed, which is precisely what Hemsath’s students did on Nov. 20. Hemsath, a former grad student of Jackson’s who received his master’s degree in biology from UNI, was eager to bring his students to the prairie.

“It’s certainly a unique opportunity for Union students to be participating in,” he said. “I think they also saw how much it means to Cathy Irvine to have the next generation take part in building this unique legacy she’s creating for our community.”

The more than 40 high school students carried ice cream buckets filled with seed and a “carrier”— a mixture of perlite and pumice stone, according to Jackson. The carrier kept the differently sized seeds equally mixed and also provided a visual guide to indicate which areas of the prairie had already been sown.

“The students really saw how much work it was for 40+ people to seed the area and how much they made a difference for the TPC staff in providing the manpower,” Hemsath said.

The windy weather conditions meant that the students needed to wear goggles as they worked, and kept their hoods raised against the chill as they worked to cover the two acres.

“It was a cool and brisk day, but the students got to take part in a project extending far beyond our classroom,” Hemsath said. “For me, I think it’s pretty special our students got to take part in what will likely be the last time we, as humans, will ever plant those two acres. It’s something they’ll be able to visit and share with others for years to come.”