Forbs and the Farm Bill

February, 2014

Lincoln -- An immediate question for our north prairie is whether to purchase more forb seed to sow in bare and disturbed areas. ("Forb" is any non-grass prairie broadleaf plant; the term was first used by Frederic Clements, the founder of the discipline of plant ecology, in 1924.)

In the Spring of 2012 we bought a mixture of prairie grasses and forbs from Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Hamilton County. Sowing right into the drought, it was fortunate that we got any results at all -- luckily a few milkweeds along with native grasses.

Arguing for another attempt is the fact that there are dangerously dwindling stands of forbs to support pollinators (bees, birds, butterflies) that are necessary for a healthy environment and ultimately essential to food security. Drought is only one threat: the new farm bill tilts away from conservation toward crop production; agricultural chemical companies are even bringing back the herbicide 2,4-D to try to deal with the unintended consequences of having cornered the corn and soybean seed markets with GMOs.

Arguing against another attempt is the fact that forbs supporting pollinators often need moist soils. Desirable as it would be to help pollinators, in drought conditions the disturbed soils will be colonized by grasses that are best adapted to that environment. This is occurring.

We might try, if we can get seed or plugs, forbs that are drought resistant, such as maximilian sunflowers, penstemons, spider and california milkweed, and varieties of prairie asters. One source is Monarch Watch, a nonprofit based at the University of Kansas, which sells flats of milkweed species adapted to different climates.

Suggestions welcomed.