Every year around about this time, a Minnesota businessman brings in an unusual harvest: seeds from native prairie plants. He aims to help preserve those species — at a profit — as their habitat slowly shrinks.
This year the threat has a new urgency. Owing to agreements that expire at the end of this month, Minnesota farmers may soon plow under almost 100,000 acres that they once agreed to take out of production for conservation purposes.
As a vintage Allis Chalmers harvester churned through a nearby 20-acre field of little blue stem, one of the native grasses that used to cover portions of the northern plains, Ron Bowen named other plants grown by the company, Prairie Restorations near Princeton, an hour north of the Twin Cities.
"Pasque flower, that's the state flower of South Dakota ... wild crocus ... prairie smoke ... Plains coreopsis ..." among the 150 species raised by the company.
The 65-year-old Bowen grew up in West St. Paul. He ran through the woods and fields and waded in the stream near his suburban home until it all disappeared: "The farm fields were completely planted with homes. The stream I remember was underground in a culvert. The woodland was cut down," he said.
Beyond Bowen's own experience, the loss of Minnesota prairie over the past two centuries is dramatic. Biologists estimate nearly one-third of the state, or about 18 million acres, was tall grass prairie before white settlement. State officials say roughly 1 percent, or about 235,000 acres remain.
Watching those natural places disappear influenced Bowen's decision to do his part to restore the prairie by starting a for-profit company 35 years ago. A committed and wealthy ally played a key role in his early success: Bruce Dayton, the father of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, and the retired CEO of the Dayton-Hudson Corp., the forerunner of Target Corp.
Bruce Dayton asked Bowen to restore a native prairie on 149 acres of family land in the western Twin Cities suburb of Orono, which the Dayton family donated as a scientific and natural area, open to the public. Garden stores didn't sell enough of the prairie seeds or plants, and a piece of remnant prairie that Bowen had once harvested was no long available, so he decided that the only way to find enough seed for prairie restoration was to grow it.
Thirty-five years later the company's steady 45 employees — the number swells to more than 100 in summer — gather and process native prairie plant seeds nearly year round.
Gathering the prairie plant seeds is labor intensive. Even with plots and fields of single plant communities, workers still take to the woodlands and grasslands with shears and knives to collect more unusual species. Fans dry the plants in sheds. Workers chop off the heads and shake them to separate, often nearly microscopic seeds, sometimes collecting as little as 5 pounds of seed for an entire season.
Still, business is good for Bowen's prairie restoration enterprise. The company has six sites around the state, including a 500-acre farm in the Red River Valley east of Moorhead. And Bowen beams as he leads visitors through the company's nearly complete new headquarters building on a 400-acre farm near Princeton.
He says the company averages about 300 prairie restoration projects a year. It plants and restores up to 1,500 acres of prairie a year on land around office buildings, college campuses and government-owned property among other spaces.
But while it's been a good year for Bowen's company, that's not the case for the prairie. Agreements expire at the end of this month on about 293,000 acres around the state that Minnesota farmers agreed to take out of production for conservation purposes. One estimate is that nearly 100,000 acres of prairie-like grassland will be plowed and planted, as farmers seek additional acreage to take advantage of high crop prices this year.
Bowen regards all this as a threat to the planet's web of life.
"I'm talking about water tables, wildlife, you and me, everything," he said. "So, it's not just about plants. That's a good start. There are so many organisms down in the soil that we don't even know about."
Bowen is far from alone in his concerns. This summer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced an expanded commitment to prairie preservation with a 25-year plan to buy or encourage owners to preserve hundreds of thousands of areas of habitat to protect native species, including buying some land and working with landowners to protect other parcels.
The DNR strategy includes connecting what it calls core pieces of native habitat with corridors to encourage the establishment of native species, at a cost of about $3.6 billion with roughly a third coming from the sales tax funded state Outdoor Heritage Fund.