The pioneers who came to western Iowa in the mid-1800s often noted in their diaries that grasses grew tall on these prairie lands. In fact, some wrote that their cattle could get lost in the jungle of vegetation, and a fellow would need to stand up on a horse to find the missing herd.

While some comments about the new land can be passed off as hyperbole, there is no doubt that the nation’s agricultural lands were once fertile and deep, full of organic matter and the web of soil life. And the land was in balance. Mother Nature grew these fabled forages without having to go to the bank to take out an operating note to buy a single crop input.

Growing more food while restoring resources is agriculture’s job for the 21st Century. Agriculture is evolutionary, defined by broad movements as the ebb and flow of time changes the nature of farming. As the collective mind of agriculture becomes enlightened, farmers set off on new directions.

The Dust Bowl years brought on an era of soil conservation, a trend that extended through the end of the 20th Century and still is important today.

But our new century will be defined by The Great Restoration. This effort cuts across all important aspects of agriculture’s implied covenant with consumers; from restoring soil health to protecting pollinators to bringing new life to rural communities. Sustainability is a term tossed about with ease these days, but from society’s standpoint, food production must be sustainable. There is no other option.

There’s also a new emphasis on farming legacy these days. And from society’s standpoint, nothing could be more valuable than passing the farming craft from generation to generation.

That’s why you are seeing more involvement today from groups ranging from government agencies to agribusinesses, universities to environmental groups, all stepping up to support (and help finance) this potential new direction for agriculture. And financial support will be a key. It often takes more than $200 an acre just to buy the seed mix that supports butterfly habitat, for example, and society will need to help bankroll the effort.

But this need also spurs the cooperation between environmental activists and the farmer (who ultimately is the most important environmentalist). Restoring agriculture from the ground up helps feed the world while helping farmers cut input costs. But this approach also falls in line with the dream of environmentalists to protect water quality, provide greater biodiversity, and cut pesticide use.

The new slogan for agriculture is a non-slogan; responsibly producing food, fuel, and fiber while restoring the planet. Never will we return to the days of the unbroken prairie. But the people you will meet in this special issue are focused on bringing back the unbroken glory. We hope you enjoy their stories. 

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