This Perennial Land

Restoring ecological and economic vitality to rural landscapes

This project was sparked by a 2003 discussion at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy about the difficulty of effecting change in the land of corn and soybeans—an ecologically ravaged Midwest landscape of over 100,000 square miles. 

Despite the efforts of individuals and organizations to return clean water and long-term viability to the farming landscape, progress has been fragmented and slow. What could be done to energize a larger, more cohesive movement? One missing ingredient was a clear, unifying vision that could inspire change at a landscape scale. 

And so, the idea for This Perennial Land was born, with a two-fold outcome: a book that would — through images and essays — provide a picture of what a restorative farming landscape would look like and the policies and practices needed to support it and a mapping program that could be used to help build that landscape.

We concentrated on one intensely farmed, 2.3-million acre basin in the heart of corn-soybean country—the greater Blue Earth River watershed in south central Minnesota and north central Iowa. Working closely with scientists, and state, county and federal conservation agency personnel, we traveled the countryside talking to landowners who had successfully incorporated perennials and other conservation practices into their farming operations. Their stories are captured in the book.

Then in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, we created a unique GIS-based watershed map pinpointing where the best opportunities were to use those practices to improve soil and water quality, and restore wildlife. These conversations and map have created a much clearer vision of  what a truly restorative farming landscape would look like. 

But we didn't stop there. In 2012 we partnered with the University of Minnesota's Green Lands, Blue Waters consortium, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and two sustainable agriculture nonprofits, Rural Advantage and the Land Stewardship Project to apply the mapping technology and data sets to the entire state of Minnesota.  An interactive element was added that lets users add and remove data layers as they wish.  The maps are available online at Green Lands Blue Waters.

The mapping technology and many of the data sets we've assembled are common in other states and can be tailored to cover other agricultural watersheds.  They can be an important tool for farmers, policymakers, and activists throughout the Midwest and beyond.