Conservation at Cedar Rapids airportPassengers flying in and out of Cedar Rapids’ Eastern Iowa Airport will soon be looking down on something in the fields that’s a little different than Iowa’s typical fields of corn and soybeans.

Researchers have planted some of the city-owned acres near the air terminal with strips of native grasses designed to improve water quality and habitat for wildlife. Other acres owned by the city are growing a variety of miscanthus, a fast-growing perennial that will eventually be harvested to help provide a source of renewable fuels for the boilers at the nearby University of Iowa campus.

The non-traditional crops on the land near the airport are part of Cedar Rapids’ ongoing efforts to work with area farmers and others to reduce nutrient loss from fields and improve water quality, said Marty Lenss, the director of the Eastern Iowa Airport. "We all want to do something about nutrient loss from fields and to be good stewards of the land, and we’re happy we can do our part."

Conservation pioneer

Cedar Rapids has been a pioneer in collaborating with farmers on ways to improve water quality. Earlier this year, the city launched a $4.3 million project focused on working with farmers and others to improve the quality of water in the Middle Cedar River watershed, the source of the city’s water supply.

The Middle Cedar Partnership Project is focused on building cooperation with farmers and landowners through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to help improve water quality and soil health in the Cedar River watershed.

It’s all part of a concerted effort to work together with farmers and others to improve Iowa’s water quality, said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. "The airport project will help address our responsibility to those communities further down the Cedar and Iowa rivers," he said.

Reducing nutrient loss

In its airport conservation project, Cedar Rapids officials wanted to find ways to limit nutrient loss from the city’s approximately 2,000 acres near the airport that are rented by area farmers. But they didn’t want to adversely affect revenue from the farms that the city counts on, said John Yeomans of Farmers National Company, who manages the city’s airport land.

Solutions open to most farmers didn’t work because municipally-owned land generally does not qualify for conservation cost-share programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program, Yeomans noted.

The farm manager’s solution was to work with researchers from Iowa State University (ISU) and the University of Iowa (UI) to find solutions that could both help the airport property accomplish its goals and provide a model for other farmers in Iowa. "We’re looking for things that would work on more marginal parts of our land, where we can get the conservation benefits without taking our most productive acres," Yeomans said.

ISU researchers used some of those acres as a testing site for its STRIPS project, which places native grass strips in row-crop fields as a tool to reduce nutrient loss. The university’s research has shown that strategically placed native grass strips can reduce sediment loss by 95 percent and significantly reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus, compared to conventionally farmed fields. The strips have also been shown to provide excellent habitat for pheasants and other game birds, songbirds and a wide range of other wildlife species.

With seed donated by Pheasants Forever, ISU researchers planted some 80 species on the Cedar Rapids airport land this spring.

"It’s been a great project for us because it’s so visible," said Lisa Shulte Moore, an ISU associate professor of natural resource ecology and lead researcher on the STRIPS project. "It’s really a place that people can see the prairie grasses at work."

The Cedar Rapids airport project also interspersed milkweed among the prairie grasses to attract monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects, Shulte Moore said.

Energy crop

On approximately 60 other airport acres, researchers at both ISU and UI used a modified potato planter this spring to sow miscanthus. When mature, the deep-rooted perennial grasses will be harvested after the killing frost to provide biomass that can be mixed with coal in UI boilers.

The miscanthus project is part of UI’s plan to reduce fossil fuel consumption by replacing it with biomass from renewable resources. And that’s turning into a revenue opportunity for area farmers, especially for marginal acres, Yeomans said.

"You don’t often see a project like this that’s market-driven, but that’s what this is," Yeomans said. "In all, I think the university is looking for around 2,500 acres of miscanthus to meet their energy needs."

Miscanthus is also an attractive option for farmers because, once it is established, it’s virtually maintenance-free and requires less labor or inputs than traditional row crops, Yeomans said. "It should last more than 10 years, and farmers can pretty much forget about it until harvest time each year."