Prairies as a guide for farming: Learn how at Willis Farm field day – June 20, near Thornton

For Release: June 5, 2015

THORNTON, Iowa — Iowa is noted for both its strong agricultural base and its prairie heritage, but the two are typically pitted against each other and portrayed in either-or terms. Farmer Paul Willis wants to overturn that logic by asking other farmers to see how prairie can actually be a guide for farming.

“A prairie is an ecosystem that developed naturally for this area,” says Paul, who operates Willis Farm near Thornton. “By looking at the content, you can see the interaction between the grasses, legumes and other species that live in the prairie, and use the family of plants you find as a guide. Studying the complementary elements and diversity is key. If you have a farm that has a diverse mixture of animals and plants, it creates a much healthier system than a monoculture.”

Learn more about prairies and how they can complement agriculture at a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day Paul is hosting on Saturday, June 20, from 3 p.m. until dark, near Thornton (3319 140th St., about 5 miles northwest of town). The event – “Summer Solstice Picnic on the Prairie” – is free to attend, and will feature a potluck following the program. Niman Ranch will provide hot dogs and brats. Guests are asked to bring a local foods side dish or dessert to share, as well as their own beverages. RSVPs are requested for the meal. Please contact Lauren Zastrow at or (515) 232-5661 by Wednesday, June 17. The field day is sponsored by Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Niman Ranch.

Attendees will get to explore the prairie at Willis Farm, learn about pollinators and the multiple benefits of restoring prairie, and hear Paul discuss his experience as a Niman Ranch pork producer. Laura Jackson, with the Tallgrass Prairie Center at University of Northern Iowa; Elizabeth Hill, with the Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell College; and Mary Harris, with the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project at Iowa State University, will also share their knowledge about different aspects of the prairie.

Speaking from his expertise in hog production, Paul says that prairies can be a good guide for how to establish a hog pasture and the mixture of grasses and legumes to include. “Something that works is two to three species of grasses and some legumes. That gives you 40-50 percent legumes, and 40-50 percent grasses – which is close to what you’ll find in a prairie. Obviously, you’re not going to plant a hog pasture into all prairie species. In fact, the pasture may not be any indigenous species.

“But it’s looking at the prairie ecosystem in general and seeing the types of plants that are adapted to it and to certain soil types. Iowa is tallgrass prairie. Corn is also a tall grass, and we’re able to grow a lot of it here.”

Willis Farm includes 160 acres that have been in Wetland Reserve for 12 years, with prairie potholes and headwaters of the west fork of the Cedar River. Paul Willis is the founding hog farmer and manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company, established in partnership with Bill Niman in 1998. He still lives and works on the farm where he grew up. His daughter, Sarah, works for Niman Ranch, helping to recruit more farmers who share the Niman Ranch philosophy of raising pigs.

Directions: From I-35, take Exit 180 toward Thornton and turn left onto 125th Street  / Ash Street E toward Thornton. At the first stop sign, turn right onto South 1st Street, then left onto Larch Street  / 125th Street. Continue about 2 miles west of town. Keep right onto 125th Street, going straight onto the gravel road. Turn right onto Eagle Avenue and go 1.5 miles, then turn left onto 140th Street and go about 1.5 miles; Willis Farm and prairie will be on the left.

Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2015 field day season features 40 field days around Iowa. All field days are open to the public, and most are free to attend. The guide is available online at, or contact the PFI office at (515) 232-5661 to request a printed copy.

Practical Farmers’ 2015 field days are supported by several sustaining and major sponsors, including: Albert Lea Seed; Applegate Natural & Organic Meats; BlueStem Organic Feed Mill; Center for Rural Affairs; Featherman Equipment Company; Grain Millers, Inc.; Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance; Iowa Beef Center; Iowa Farm Service Agency (USDA); Iowa Farmers Union in partnership with Town and Country Insurance and Hastings Mutual Insurance; Iowa State University Department of Agronomy; Iowa State University Extension and Outreach; Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE); Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH); ISU Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture; Klinkenborg Aerial Spraying and Seeding, Inc.; La Crosse Seed; Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture; Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES); MOSA Organic Certification; National Wildlife Federation; Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Organic Valley – Organic Prairie – CROPP Cooperative; The Nature Conservancy in Iowa; Pro-Soil Ag Solutions; Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture; and Welter Seed and Honey Company.


Founded in 1985, Practical Farmers of Iowa is an open, supportive and diverse organization of farmers and friends of farmers that seeks to strengthen farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing. Farmers in our network produce corn, soybeans, beef cattle, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. For additional information, call (515) 232-5661 or visit


Paul Willis | Willis Farm | (515) 681-2424 |

Tamsyn Jones | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515) 232-5661 |