Do you remember the 80's film Field of Dreams? Ten years later, Henry Sears, a retired surgical oncologist and longtime participant in the PlaneSense program, and Douglas Gill, a biologist with the University of Maryland, put the “build it and they will come” idea to a true test on the fields of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
They believed that by bringing back native warm-season grasslands to the region’s agricultural land, depleted by 200 years of mixed farm use, the original plant and animal species—some endangered—would come back as well. For Dr. Sears, who has long supported conservation efforts as the owner of Chino Farms, it became another run at the connection between conservation and market-driven opportunities. The outcome: a controlled and managed grasslands study now in its 12th year. To prove their hypothesis, eight species of native warm-season grasses were planted on 228 acres provided by Dr. Sears. "We had no idea whether the grasses would even grow, let alone flourish so fast,” noted Dr. Gill.
"Within a month, one of the target species of birds, the grasshopper sparrow came pouring in." Gill says. “In only two years, we had a spectacular prairie.” After six years, the number of plant species had grown to 261, with several new to the region. Animal life, including long absent species of birds, frogs, hawks and owls, also saw a similar surge.
The grasslands experiment at Chino Farms offers very good news. Long-term damage can be corrected and land can again attract species long absent. What researchers and students are learning on Dr. Sears’ farm is a key to our future and is a positive sign for sustainable agriculture.
It also triggered a separate study to grow and manage switchgrass as a biofuel. According to Dr. Sears, switchgrass costs “almost nothing” to produce. The perennial plant needs no chemical fertilizer, irrigation, herbicides or insecticides, and provides habitat for birds and many other species. And, the process has had no deleterious effect on the surrounding commercial agriculture activities.
"When we first started out," Sears recalls, "scientists had good ideas, but no data, as to whether planting grasses was the right thing to do or any idea about how to manage it."
Now they do. Our hats are off to that.
To sustain the longevity of the effort initiated by Dr. Sears and Gill, and since the research station on Chino Farms supports a number of field investigations into sustainable farm practices, habitat restoration, reptile and migratory bird patterns, and soil studies, the project recently became part of Washington College’s Center for the Environment & Society (CES) in Chestertown, MD.
Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans
One of eight grasses planted as part of the grasslands study at Chino Farms in April of 1999.
Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum
The grasshopper sparrow produces unusually high-pitched songs. Their vocalizations may aid our understanding of how environmental noise influences vocal structure and auditory perception.
Switchgrass Panicum virgatum
In 2010 a team of molecular biologists from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service published the genetic map of switchgrass which should speed up the process to make this perennial plant a more viable source of bioenergy.