COURTESY OF CARL KURTZ
St. Anthony, Iowa
In mid-October, the hills of central Iowa glow with rich golds and russets. The smattering of trees dotted among huge fields of corn and soybeans change color, and farmers work late to bring in the last of the harvests.
Like their neighbors, Carl Kurtz and his wife, Linda, have been spending long hours on the combine. Rather than corn or beans, however, the fruits of their labors - spread out in billowy piles on their barn floor - bear a striking resemblance to fluffy gray dust.
"Here's a tick trefoil. And a little bluestem. And Indian grass," says Mr. Kurtz, sifting through a handful of the gray fluff to easily identify nearly microscopic seeds: coneflower, rigid goldenrod, Canada wild rye.
Kurtz still farms the 255 acres his father bought in 1930, where the family raised pigs, chickens, cattle, and corn when he was a boy. Today, aside from 90 acres he rents out for the traditional corn-and-bean rotation, nearly all of the land is used to grow prairie. He sells the seed to homeowners, businesses, and towns that, more and more, want to plant their land so it looks the way it did 150 years ago.
While his stands of prairie are a rarity among the huge tracts of commodities that surround them, Kurtz is far from the only person growing grass seed. What is unusual is the way he grows it. Unlike nearly every other seed farmer in Iowa, he's not interested in monocultures. Instead, he sells seed in a bulk mix that includes at least 40 or 50 different species.
Kurtz, a former freelance photographer who was trained as a biologist, originally started growing prairie this way for economic reasons. Far cheaper to grow than monocultures, it meant he could offer it at much lower prices to customers. What he hadn't guessed was how many ecological benefits he'd see.
"With a monoculture it never really stabilizes," he explains. "I had a friend who had butterfly milkweed, which he planted on his hands and knees, and he only got seed out of it one year."