University-Owned Farmland Begins a Slow but Exciting Transformation

February 17, 2021 By Leilah Langley
sewing seeds in a light snow

Eastern Washington University’s Cheney campus sits on roughly 300 acres of beautiful, rolling hills on the northern edge of the Palouse prairie. For decades, Eastern allowed farmers to utilize more than a third of that acreage to harvest wheat. Now, in an effort to better serve EWU and the greater community, the university is embarking on a project to restore the farmland to its native Palouse habitat.

Planning, research and design for the Prairie Restoration Project has been underway for the past couple of years. Teams had to study the land and its soil, investigate and procure suitable native plant species, and develop a master plan. Though the COVID-19 pandemic caused some delays, a team of faculty, staff and students at the end of January took a critical first step—planting seeds on the site.

“We’re out here today doing a bunch of hand broadcasting, which is basically taking the seeds in our hands and throwing them out,” says Erik Budsberg, the sustainability coordinator at EWU and project manager for the Prairie Restoration Project. “We’re setting up research plots to look at the aspects of different seed mixes that we plant, which will help us determine how we manage those in the future.”

Spreading seed in the middle of an Inland Northwest winter sounds a little crazy. But, according to Budsberg, laying the seeds on top of a fresh layer of snow will allow the seeds to seep into the ground as the snow melts. Plus, as the seeding team had hoped, the site received another fresh layer of snow after the hand broadcasting was complete, which will protect the seeds from hungry birds and other small animals.

The on-site work started with a small pilot plot located just southwest of Roos Field. Budsberg says project organizers originally hoped to create a 15-acre pilot site last fall, but the weather didn’t cooperate: Too much rain saturated the soil, which meant crews couldn’t bring in the heavy machinery needed to seed large sections. To avoid having to wait a full growing season to get started, organizers decided instead to seed a smaller 1.5-acre section by hand.

The seed mixes include a biodiverse array of grasses and forbs that once grew in the area. The seeding team spread different mixes in separate, well-marked areas so that they can later determine which seed groupings most successfully produced healthy mature plants.

“We’ve been setting up annual seed additions and perennial seed additions,” explains Kristy Snyder, a biology graduate student at EWU. “This is a project for my thesis, and I’m interested in studying annual seeds to find out if we can assist succession.”

Snyder and the others are hopeful they’ll see the seeds start to sprout in the spring and summer and can start conducting the research that will lay the framework for the entire 120-acre site.

“We can experiment and determine which [seeding] approaches are most successful,” adds Rebecca Brown, professor and chair of the EWU Biology Department. “It’s very exciting. It’s going to be transformative, I think, because our campus is going to have this pretty large area with native biodiversity representing prairie that is becoming pretty rare in this region.”

The full restoration project will take years. Researchers have to wait for the plants to grow—which in some cases can take more than one growing season—to determine which species will grow the best. And it’s not just biologists doing all the work. Scholars and student researchers in other disciplines, such as geology and environmental science, will study the soil and the ground water.

“It will be a living laboratory where we can use our facilities to allow faculty and students to do a lot of great research,” says Budsberg. “The project will also provide some new opportunities that mimic more real-world situations, as students and faculty connect with different departments and programs that they might not have connected with before.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the Prairie Restoration Project will bring students together in new ways, better preparing them for professional careers. Project leaders have already started working with faculty and students in geography, anthropology, archeology, American Indian studies, education and communications. The opportunities will only grow as the pilot site expands.

“We’re hoping to use this site as a jumping off point for our pilot site, where we can have more students get involved with their own experiments,” says Snyder.

In addition to creating student research opportunities now and for generations to come, the Prairie Restoration Project will also serve the greater community by providing recreational and learning opportunities. The final phase of the project, still years down the road, includes adding walking trails and informational markers to educate visitors on the native plants and their important role in our ecosystem.

“People can come and see the views and move around through these awesome Palouse hills,” says Brown. “I think it’s going to be wonderful.”

Explore the many ways you can help support the Prairie Restoration Project at ewu.edu/prairiefund.