In the summer of 2021, some of our Verdant and Convivial staff visited Linda Hezel’s captivating Prairie Birthday Farm in Kearney, Missouri. During our visit Linda gave us a guided tour through her buzzing ecosystem she has stewarded and cultivated for nearly 30 years. To say it was educational and inspiring is just scratching the surface.
We share Part One of our interview with Linda below. From soil health to conservation of local flora, Linda both enlightens and encourages us to avail ourselves to the ongoing education, work, and care for the land around us.
When did your interest and appreciation for nature begin?
As a child. I grew up on a tiny farm and was always outside.
How did it develop into cultivating and growing your prairie farm?
Like many in my generation, I grew up on a farm. It was small but fed our family well despite our modest means. I could not imagine when I left to pursue a career in nursing that I would come full circle back to my childhood experience. This time it was with the perspective of as a family nurse practitioner and a deeper understanding of the fundamental and complex requirement for good health: nutrient dense, un-poisoned food.
Becoming pregnant with the first of my two sons brought a special passion and sense of urgency to acting on that understanding. Growing food for family came first. When my sons started school, I sought ways to share the bounty with chefs and individuals in the area.
Knowing how to feed myself and others is a priceless gift from my parents. In a way, growing food is a way of keeping their memory alive and preserving some of my cultural heritage. Thus,
PBF was begun with the conviction that family health and the soil’s health are inextricably linked.
Would you share with us the story behind the name Prairie Birthday Farm?
Why Prairie Birthday Farm? Reconstructing a bit of prairie allows us the privilege of celebrating plant birthdays. The often-asked explanation for the name enables us to inform others about Leopold’s legacy.
“During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. He who steps unseeing on may dandelions may be hauled up short by August Ragweed Pollen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April Elms may skid his car on the fallen Corollas of June Catalpas. Tell me of what plant birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education”
– Aldo Leopold, a Sand County Almanac, Prairie Birthday Essay, 1949
Tell us more about Prairie Birthday Farm? How old is it? When did you purchase it? How has it changed under your care? And how is it being utilized today?
This farm, acquired with little plant diversity (Fescue, Foxtail) and poor soil health (soil organic matter 2%), was purchased in 1993 and later incorporated as Prairie Birthday Farm LLC. The PBF landscape has been intentionally and progressively designed over the last 28 years to mimic nature’s processes of multidimensional, complex interactions of organisms in food production. As much as possible, the native ecosystems necessary for balance and synergy among plants, animals, and humans have been and are continually being enhanced. As writer Gary Nabhan has suggested in Food From the Radical Center, it is “conservation you can taste.” Incorporating native plants into food production and as a food source, while adding to the community’s food security, also offers:
- Adaptability to soil and weather
- Maintenance of healthy and diverse ecosystems
- The conservation and propagation of local flora
On your website we read that PBF “aims to inspire and empower others to experience, consume, and honor nutritious food.” Would you speak to why this is important?
For me, producing and teaching others to grow and consume nutrient-dense food (because none of us can be well without it) is a natural extension of my nursing practice. Being unaware of how to grow one’s own food is significant vulnerability/dependency.
“Over 200 years ago, 90 percent of the U.S. Population lived on farms and produced their own food to eat. But today, only two percent of the population produces the food, including fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy, that everyone eats." (Prax, 2010)
During our tour, you shared with us about the biodiversity on your farm. What does that look like and why is it important?
Diversity in produce is designed, selected, produced, and marketed to buffer PBF from changes in customers, trends, and the complex nature systems responsible for farm production. Perennial plantings provide stable production while decreasing inputs.
The diverse system provides food and habitat for our fellow earth inhabitants and ecosystem services for the community. PBF products include flowers (36+ culinary decorative varieties), fruits (25+ varieties), herbs (40+ varieties), and vegetables (15+ varieties); native plants: 140+ (forbs, grasses, bushes, vines trees/shrubs); chicken and duck eggs; honey; and art: photographs tablescapes.
You can read Linda's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education report on here.
Tell us about the erosion problem we're facing and how it affects your farm.
Soil is a natural resource and the fragile product of thousands of years of formation. Topsoil, which lies closest to the surface of the land, contains essential nutrients for crops. It is this layer of soil that is endangered by wind and water erosion. Soil erosion decreases soil fertility, therefore plant productivity and nutrients. Soil is eroding more quickly than it is being formed. Because PBF is not tilled, soil erosion is very minimal. The rain bombs – heavy downpours in a short time – is causing erosion in small spots not seen in the previous 25 years. Bad land management by surrounding landowners is causing watershed changes that make it harder to protect the land.
During our tour, you spoke about the regular research and testing that goes on at PBF. Please share more about what that entails and why you do it.
As a lifelong learner, I am committed to capturing as much information as possible to inform my decision-making about stewarding the land and leaving it better for future generations. I love learning.
You mentioned you do annual burning. What do you burn and why is it helpful?
I burn sections of the prairie on a rotating basis. Native prairie plants evolved with fire and benefit from the activity. It provides some minimal suppression of invasive species.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview with Linda, coming soon. Until then, you can follow Prairie Birthday Farm on Instagram.