Iowa's past holds lessons'

By Greta Solbrig on March 28, 2024 in Landowner Stories

Having grown up in a family with an appreciation for nature and outdoor activities, Cathy Irvine has spent her life connected to the land. She took extra steps to ensure nature was part of her students’ understanding of the world throughout her career in special education in the Waterloo school district.

“I thought it was important for children to be outside,” Cathy said. “We always planted a tree on Arbor Day, planted flower bulbs in the fall, had plants on windowsills.”

She and her late husband David made their home on the Irvine family farm, more than 400 acres of rich agricultural land in Benton County. David had a deep love for the land, for Iowa and its history. The decades spent together on the property deepened that connection for both of them. But a simple road trip and a good book would ignite a curiosity and change the trajectory of that farm.

“We had read John Madson’s ‘Where the Sky Began,’ and it was pivotal,” Cathy said. “We were fascinated to think how Iowa looked when Europeans first arrived.”

Around that same time, the couple traveled to Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County to visit the bison, elk and expansive prairie. It was on this trip they first became aware of how much prairie had been lost and the efforts to bring prairie back. The couple found themselves drawn to the rich biodiversity that once flourished on the land where they now lived.

After David’s passing, Cathy felt the urge to transform their passion into something tangible.

“The strongest instinct I had was to preserve something he loved about living here,” Cathy remembers. “Iowa’s past holds lessons. We need reminders of what allowed Iowa farmers to do such a good job of raising healthy crops.”

Cathy Irvine, center, with Laura Jackson and Erin Van WausWith her background on nurturing students and the couple’s long history as INHF supporters, Cathy knew which organizations to pull together to discuss her goals. The University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center (TPC) would be the perfect entity to steward the area with student involvement. In 2018, Cathy donated 77 acres of the Irvine Farm to INHF, who then transferred the land to TPC subject to a conservation easement.

“Conservation easements restrict what can and cannot be done on the land in the future,” explained Erin Van Waus, INHF Conservation Easement Director. “With this legal tool, the Irvine Prairie will remain prairie forever, regardless of future ownership.”

But there was still a prairie to build.

“There’s more to it than buying seed and scattering it around,” Cathy said.

Cathy worked with Laura Jackson, biology professor and TPC Director, and others at the prairie center to evaluate the best course of action for the planting process. The land would be restored in distinct phases, splitting up the job into smaller, more manageable plots. First, the land was evaluated to determine the species the soil could support, along with consideration of what plants are most successful in prairie reconstructions. Justin Meissen, TPC’s Research and Restoration Program Manager, designed the first seed mix to include a wide array of forbs, sedges, grasses and legumes. Cathy herself is very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of prairie ecosystems and made sure species like rattlesnake master, golden alexander, compass plant, and aster varieties were in the mix.

“You can’t choose just one plant as a favorite. There’s something spectacular in every season,” said Cathy. “It’s all beautiful.”

The planting methods varied, including techniques ranging from no-till seed drilling to transplanting seedlings. Cathy remains consistently involved with the planning meetings and hands-on work, helping with mowing and watering when needed.

The large-scale restoration project has yielded many learning opportunities for the planters and caretakers. Data has been gathered every step of the way, providing insight to how species germinate and respond to different practices.

“It is very unusual to have so much documented information about how the work is conducted,” said Laura.

Such a complete data set is also beneficial for studies on prairie’s efficiency in carbon sequestration. Lara recently attended a master’s thesis defense on the study of the prairie’s soil, which demonstrated that each hectare of the land is storing the equivalent of carbon emissions from one car.

Leaning into Cathy’s hope that this be a place for learning, TPC views the prairie as an educational resource for students to directly observe the effects of seed mix design, prairie diversity and evolving restoration techniques. Student workers, along with volunteers at TPC, have had the opportunity to assist in vegetation monitoring, taking photo points and participating in prescribed burns on the property. Irvine Prairie has already been incorporated into restoration ecology and wildlife ecology course curriculum, and UNI has incorporated three camera traps which have captured thousands of photos of the wildlife species who have already moved in. High schools such as Union High have also gotten involved with the project, transplanting hundreds of plants on the property.

Students learn about prairie at Irvine Prairie

“My vision twenty years from now is that young families will come out and their mom or dad will say, ‘I planted this prairie,’ and they will have that ownership,” Cathy explained.

A few years later, with the prairie restoration well underway and students and faculty learning alongside one another, Cathy again chose to make a gift. She donated another 215 acres of the Irvine farm — more than tripling the size of this teaching laboratory — so more prairie can take hold. Restoration work is already in full swing.

“We are incredibly honored and privileged to work with Cathy and help make this dream a reality for her and for the whole community — the people and the wildlife,” said Laura.

Through an effort to merge a resplendent past and budding future, she is sowing the seeds for a more diverse Iowa landscape. The ever-enduring legacy of the Irvine family will extend for generations to come and help cultivate a state-wide passion for prairie ecosystems. Cathy’s vision and collaboration with UNI students has made the Irvine prairie a beloved piece of the Benton County community, who can immerse themselves in nature and enjoy the outdoors closer to home. Cathy’s exemplary stewardship will remain an example to those passionate about restoration.

“We need to be resilient in planning and thinking ahead,” urged Cathy. “The best way to do that is by looking back.”