Prairie Research Could Help Farming Become More Resilient, Sustainable
On a still November day, Patrick O’Neal, the burn coordinator at Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kansas, convenes a meeting about a planned fire.
“The goal today is to burn about 52 acres,” he says, pointing out the specific sections on a map.
The clear blue sky and minimal wind provide inviting conditions. A short time later, the fire crew arrives at the first spot, and members pull on firefighter coats and helmets.
The autumn landscape is mostly beige and brown — until it’s burning. Quickly, orange flames and dark plumes of smoke transform the view and briefly blacken the sky in places…
The Land Institute, about an hour’s drive west of Konza in Salina, Kansas, is a place that has dedicated its own decades of research to exploring how agriculture can be more sustainable. Researchers there bred a perennial wheat variety,Kernza, which is now available commercially. Chinese collaborators have demonstrated a possible perennial rice.
For nearly 20 years, David Van Tassel has been working, first as a side project and now as his main focus, on a particular wild relative of sunflower called silphium. It caught his eye growing wild adjacent to plots on the windy plains where he was conducting other experiments.
“Watching it go through droughts and doing very well compared with many other plants, noticing the seeds were large, noticing that they tasted good, seeing butterflies being attracted to them,” he says, all inspired him to see whether silphium could become a perennial crop.