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‘Genius grant’ for professor who created prairie strips to reduce farm runoff

Iowa State University professor Lisa Schulte Moore, a creator of prairie strips in farm fields to markedly reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, won a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant on Tuesday. Schulte Moore, one of 25 winners announced by the foundation, was described as a “landscape ecologist working closely with farmers to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems.”

A ground-breaking researcher, Schulte Moore incorporates disciplines such as economics, engineering, and sociology into the field of ecology to address issues such as climate change and rural population loss, said ISU.

“I am focused on the Corn Belt – the highly productive middle of the United States – because of its out-sized influence on agricultural technology, markets, and policies, both nationally and globally,” said Schulte Moore. “Corn Belt agriculture affects the lives of millions, if not billions, of people and the health of the planet. It is also my home.”

A mixture of wildflowers and prairie tallgrass, prairie strips are planted across the downslope of a field and vary from 30 to 120 feet across to maximize soil and nutrient retention. They can reduce erosion by 95% and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous by 70% to 80%. The perennial vegetation forms a habitat for pollinating insects, predators of crop pests, and birds and mammals that live in grasslands.

Adoption of prairie strips is one of the least expensive conservation practices available to farmers because they can be located on less-productive parts of a field. “Dr. Schulte Moore’s work provides many answers to the critical questions that farmers face today,” said Margaret Zeigler, head of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation.

Prairie strips are in use in 14 states on more than 115,000 acres of cropland. There are around 396 million acres of cropland in the country, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Schulte Moore, 50, joined the ISU faculty in 2003 and is a professor of natural resource ecology and management. She was a first-generation college student in her family and also is the first ISU member to win a MacArthur fellowship, the formal name for what is popularly called a genius grant. ISU president Wendy Wintersteen said the award was an “endorsement of her promising research and scholarly excellence.”

The MacArthur Foundation said Schulte Moore “does intensive outreach to encourage uptake of the prairie strips program.” She was lead developer of People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration, a game-based learning tool that helps people understand the impacts of agricultural and natural land uses.

In 2017, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its $625,000 genius grants to Greg Asbed, one of three co-founders of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers rights organization.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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