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'This is my field of dreams': Prairie Smoke have banded together to restore prairie land

Prairie Smoke have banded together to restore prairie land, including Ed and Cindi Pfannkoch, who own about 100 acres along the North Branch Root River northwest of Chatfield.

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Ed Pfannkoch stands in the restored prairie that was burned three months before. The burn helped get the prairie flowers and grasses to grow more vigorously.
Contributed / John Weiss
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CHATFIELD — Late April, 2022: fire crackled and snapped as it rolled up the field, setting it ablaze in brilliant orange-and-black flames, reducing last year’s plants to ash.

Late July, 2022: yellow and purple coneflowers, orange butterfly weed and purple-pink bee balm set the same land ablaze, this time with color and beauty. Flowers are fed in part with ashes of the burn.

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Welcome back fire, welcome back prairie. 

Ed and Cindi Pfannkoch have owned about 100 acres along the North Branch Root River northwest of Chatfield since 2009 and a few years ago, decided to return nine acres to prairie. A map of pre-settlement vegetation showed their land was once either full upland prairie or a mix of trees, brush and prairie openings.

“I grew up in New Jersey” with many fields near home and there was bluestem, pheasants and rabbits, he said. “That’s all gone,” he said. “It’s just gone, if you don’t value those open spaces, they can be gone.” The two decided to value their land and help it with prairie.

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For millennia, that prairie was rejuvenated with fire that helped butt out most trees and returned nutrients to the soil. Bark of bur oaks, however, are flame tolerant. Several stand guard over the restored prairie; they were probably young when the first Europeans came or maybe sprouted with the first settlers.

When the first Europeans began domesticating the land for farming more than 150 years ago, one of the first things they did was fight fire. More trees began to take over what prairie wasn’t turned into farmland. Prairie is now the most endangered habitat in the state, with a meager 1 percent left, and some of that is either being turned to other uses or trees are taking over.

A growing number of people, such as the Pfannkochs, however, are determined to turn back the biological clock. Some have banded together in The Prairie Smoke; Ed Pfannkoch if now president of the local chapter.

In late April, he and some fellow members, as well as friends, set fire to the nine acres, walking away after the last flames died out, leaving gray ash and a quiet land. 

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This is what land along the North Branch Root River looked like in late April after the old grasses and other vegetation was burned to make way for prairie.
John Weiss / contributed

In late July, Ed walked over the same land and was in awe. 

“Just look at the color,” he said. “This is my field of dreams … Every time I come our here, it looks different, something new is blooming, the colors are changing. It’s really gratifying.”

He could see maybe a dozen species of native grasses and flowers — big and little bluestem, coneflowers, bee balm, butterfly weed, sunflowers and side oats grama. In a few weeks, the field will change to golden-yellow with more sunflowers. Give the prairie a few more weeks, and it will be flourishing with asters, the final act of a half-year-long parade of plants.

He moved on a bit more and saw more such as a bumble bee with a big sacks of pollen on back legs, and blazing star, Rattlesnake master is growing but it’s sparse right now — later, it could really spread out. 

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But there’s much more to that prairie than flowers and grasses. When he walks it with his yellow Lab Riva, he has seen hen pheasants with broods and deer beds. He knows wild turkeys use his land too, As he walked in late July, he also saw several species of butterflies and bees, two kinds of wildlife also being hit with hard times but incredibly necessary as pollinators.

Pfannkoch said the land was being grazed when they bought it but it was hard to graze cattle there and planting row crops would have been tough because it’s steep. In 2019, he heard abut the federal program to help save pollinators. An expert designed a seed mix of six grasses and 28 forbs. It took six days in winter  to cut and burn cedars that were encroaching. Then he sprayed the field to kill brome and other unwanted grasses. Finally, he planted using a special planter. “That was exciting” as in scary. “It was kind of steep and nerve-wracking” but he got it done.
He knew not to expect quick results. How prairie grows is this: “prairie sleeps the first year, creeps the second year and leaps the third year.”  His is now leaping. “Last year was the first year it really bloomed,” he said. “And this year is even better … it’s really coming along nicely.”

This spring was the first big burn; he will repeat it every three to four years but do some in fall to favor certain plants. It was probably be the first time some of his bur oaks had felt fire in many decades, Pfannkoch said.

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An Easter black swallowtail butterfly rests on prairie plants.
John Weiss / contributed

Another thing he saw, or didn’t see, with the prairie was erosion. Before the prairie, a heavy rain would send water, and even logs, rushing down some gullies. This year, after a 3.5-inch rain, gullies were dry the next day, he said. He figured that the nine acres held 3,000 tons of water in that storm and much soaked in to refresh the plants in dry times.

“We started an evolution,” he said. Plants are scattered now but they will slowly find their ideal little bit of prairie and there will be pockets of coneflowers here, big bluestem there, rattlesnake master a bit farther on, depending on the soil.  He can already see where one corner of one field has head-high plants, but nearby, they are a foot or two shorter - probably because of difference in soils.

At last count, he has 58 species of native plants on his restored prairie and about 120 overall on their land.

At the top of his land, where he could see so much of the prairie, he looked and was happy. “This is just spectacular,” he said.

Results like that are what the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program wants, said Jacob Hernandez, a private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in La Crosse, Wis. 

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He runs the program that helped Pfannkoch. While it helps private landowners, its aim is to benefit federal trust resources such as migratory birds and threatened or endangered species. Because Pfannkoch would restore prairie, it benefited migratory upland nesting birds such as meadowlarks or bobolinks and pollinators. “We have a huge pollinator decrease in this country,” he said. Upland prairie will help imperiled pollinators such as monarch butterflies, he said.

The program is run on a 50-50 cost share, with landowners paying with cash, in-kind work or other means, he said.

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A bee loaded with pollen feeds on a bee balm plant in the restored prairie of Ed and Cindi Pfannkoch northwest of Chatfield.
Contributed / John Weiss

While he doesn’t have statistics, he said “we are seeing more and more people showing interest in this. The farming community is aging and people are retiring … and the next generation isn’t interested in farming as many acres” but still want to keep the land. His program helps with the cost of turning land to other uses and gives technical help, he said.

It’s important that those with existing prairie take care of it, he said. “Prairie systems are just like any other habitat type, they require maintenance,” Hernandez said. If you don’t burn them now and then, the prairie could be taken over by brush. And then that parade of flowers will gradually fade away.

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The controlled burn at Ed and Cindi Pfannkoch’s land spread fast, rise high and hot but quickly died out.
Contributed / John Weiss
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The old bur oaks weren’t threatened by a controlled burn because they evolved being able to withstand most fires.
Contributed / John Weiss

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