The History of Perennial Cropping on Woody’s Farm

By Woody Woodruff

Mud Prairie Farm is the name I gave my farm to make it feel more like a living, breathing ecosystem. When I was a kid growing up, my farm family fit in well with everyone else in Illinois; corn and beans were all we planted. We added hogs and cattle in my junior high years, which came with a shift to some alfalfa in the farm’s rotation. As a freshman in high school I planted 500 white pines and 500 black walnuts on 5 acres as a FFA project but it was my Peace Corps training on Agro-Forestry that gave me my first real understanding of the perennial cropping systems. I touched on these agroforestry systems in an earlier Conservation E-newsletter, but it was not until I began work with the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and their annual fundraising tree sale that I started planting a wider range of trees and shrubs. I have averaged at least 100 plus trees a year since then. It was also through my water quality research project with SWCD that I gained a clearer picture of our modern agricultural system’s effect on our environment and its pitfalls. During the research project I applied many different best management practices to gauge their affect, but I always had a hard time stopping atrazine and nutrients from leaving the crop field when the rains came at the wrong time, wrong speed, or in the wrong amount. Once my research project came to an end, I become motivated to evolve my farm’s purpose and decided to use the farm to start an independent ecosystem restoration business using sustainable perennial cropping systems.

adding perennial forbes

Woody starts perennials plants in his homemade greenhouse

At one time, Mud Prairie was a historic prairie, but few of those numerous native species remained on the farm. I had to collect prairie and savannah forbs, grasses, and woody species from Illinois, of which some of them were extremely rare. These grasses, forbs, and woodies, about 60 different types, required different types of environments to grow: moist, dry, mosaic, sandy, flat, hillside, shade, partial shade, and full sun. On the farm there are now tall grass prairies, small grass prairies, and oak savannas. Propagating perennials takes more energy in the beginning than growing annual plants. Annuals for the most part establish easy, grow fast, produce seeds, and then die. Perennials start slower and take more time and care to get established. It takes about a year of care for perennials to become self-sustaining, where annuals can maintain on their own much quicker, but only last till winter. I started by putting the different plants into individual plots and then into the different prairie ecosystem environments. Ecosystem restoration required a great deal of research on cultural flora and fauna interaction. The prairie system evolved in different phases of interaction, starting with chaos. It takes patience to let the prairie develop and not quit. Every season of growth after that rocky beginning, the prairie system became more and more stable and took less and less to maintain.  It became clear to me that the prairie was a living thing that was evolving from its diverse interaction with the environment to form a healthy life-supporting, self-contained ecosystem.

As I did more research on ecosystem restoration, I came to a fascinating realization regarding human involvement in the development of ecosystems and their use to human survival. In the beginning of my prairie planning, I created mostly tall grass prairie plots, but I also added some small grass prairie plots as well. Having had some existing educational background in studying native medicinal herb, I realized that most of the forbs that were native to a small grass prairie were also used as medicines by the Native Americans that inhabited these prairies. I feel that the natives could have easily transplanted these plant medicines to keep them close to their settlement. Mud Prairie was once home to a village of native mound builders and more than likely their small grass prairie medicines. The natives also fed on the bounty of oak nut bushes that were a product of the burning of the tall grass prairie ecosystems. So to me it is easy to see that humans have been managing multi-species cropping systems in Illinois for quite some time.

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Currently, I am working on developing fields of multifunctional perennial cropping systems with a variety of edible nuts, fruit trees, berry producing shrubs, and medical herbs at the ground level. These perennial fields will slowly replace my input intensive annual corn and soybean fields. I am glad to see an interest is evolving in agriculture to this more sustaining systems of mimicking the natural systems of food production.  I will continue to plant hundreds of perennials every year at Mud Prairie. At this point in my individual perennial production I am fixed on an old proverb; “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”