Prairie strip ecology, art, and advocacy in the LTER: Reflections from an LTER Fellow

Corinn Rutkoski is a graduate student in Sarah Evan’s lab at the Kellogg Biological Station. She is broadly interested in the use of perennials in agricultural systems, science policy, and soil health. Her research path has been propelled by a reciprocal inspiration among ecology, conservation, and creativity.  

Corinn’s chalk art for Lisa Schulte Moore’s KBS seminar.

In September 2018, Lisa Schulte Moore was scheduled to give a seminar at KBS titled Prairie strips improve biodiversity and multiple ecosystem services from corn-soybean croplands. At the time, I was a technician in Sarah Evans’ lab at KBS, considering graduate school but uncertain whether research was the path I was looking for. I care about science, but also art, natural history, and activism, and I wasn’t sure how to explore them all in one place. One morning as I was arriving at the lab, Nick Haddad stopped me in the hallway and asked me if I would draw an advertisement for Lisa’s upcoming seminar on the hallway chalkboard. A recent KBS graduate, Bonnie McGill, had been drawing chalkboard advertisements for years, and Nick was looking for someone to take over. I half-jokingly obliged and sketched a quick chalk drawing for Lisa’s talk. In the three years since, I’ve drawn many more chalkboard advertisements, explored conservation agriculture through policy and art, and I’m halfway through a PhD studying prairie strips with Lisa, Sarah, and Nick – Lisa’s seminar was the start of several years of science, art, and advocacy!

Lisa’s seminar introduced me to a farm conservation practice studied by her team at Iowa State University called prairie strips. The practice involves seeding native tallgrass prairie species into sections of rowcrop fields that are prone to soil erosion or unstable crop yields. ISU researchers found that once prairie strips mature and establish, the prairie resumes many of the ecological functions it once performed as an intact ecosystem. Landscape-scale biodiversity increases multifold upon the reintroduction of prairie; the strips provide habitat corridors through which native birds, insects, and plants can disperse and colonize. Surrounding habitat is protected, too, as the deep and complex root systems of prairie plants obstruct runoff of soil and agrochemicals into nearby waterways. I began my PhD program against the backdrop of these findings in 2019, just as prairie strips were being introduced to experimental farm plots at the KBS LTER. 

Corinn observing the newly planted prairie strips, part of the KBS LTER Main Cropping Systems Experiment.

In the LTER Main Cropping System Experiment, my work explores how soil microbes assemble and function when prairie strips are planted in a rowcrop field. Soil microbes contribute to many ecosystem services that are important for sustainable agriculture, including carbon storage, pesticide degradation, and plant nutrient availability. To characterize these dynamics, I collect soil from prairie strip plots every summer and analyze them to understand which microbial taxa are there and which functions they are carrying out. Each summer – with the help of generous Evans labmates! – I collect hundreds of soil samples within prairie strips and surrounding cropland. To understand the composition of the microbial communities, I extract and sequence bacterial and fungal DNA from each sample, and I look for mutualist arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in fine roots under a microscope. I analyze each soil sample for several measurements – including microbial biomass, carbon mineralization, and enzyme production – to determine how microbes are cycling carbon within and adjacent to the prairie strips from one year to the next.

So far, I’m finding that the composition and function of soil microbial communities shift during prairie strip establishment. Prairie strip soils appear to support and maintain higher bacterial diversity from year to year compared to rowcrop soils. Surprisingly, however, they don’t support a higher abundance of mutualistic fungi known to associate with prairie plant species, suggesting that prairie strip plants are not relying on fungal mutualists for nutrient acquisition. Compared to rowcrop soils, prairie strips also exhibit significantly greater microbial biomass carbon and mineralizable carbon, and this effect spills over into rowcrop soils immediately adjacent to the prairie strip. This means that prairie strips might accumulate and stabilize soil carbon at a higher rate than conventionally managed crop soils. Soil microbial structure and function are also contingent upon which annual crop is in rotation and which agriculture management regime is in use. 

A piece of Corinn’s art, inspired by her work with native Michigan perennial plants and prairie strips.

Findings from my project and from others in the KBS LTER prairie strips can inform the implementation of prairie strips in Michigan agroecosystems. I am part of the MiSTRIPS team, building off Lisa’s work on prairie strips in Iowa and exploring whether this conservation practice may offer solutions to Michigan’s unique ecological and economic needs.  Implementing prairie strips on Michigan farms could mitigate excess runoff of agrochemicals into the Great Lakes and protect aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication, and planting prairie strips in specialty crop regions like the Fruit Belt could provide the habitat and resources needed for crop pollination throughout the growing season. Alongside many other LTER grad students and staff, I’ve met with policymakers to advocate for increased funding to agricultural research and conservation programs, talked with farmers about how they can introduce prairie strips on their own farms, and made art that depicts some of Michigan’s threatened native plants that can be seeded into prairie strips. 

Want to learn more about Corinn’s work? Visit the links below to learn more about prairie ecology, conservation, and art.