AMES, Iowa — A landscape ecologist and professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University is the first ISU faculty member to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Last month, Lisa Schulte Moore was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. According to the MacArthur Foundation website, Schulte Moore was awarded the fellowship for "implementing locally relevant approaches to build soil, improve water quality, protect biodiversity, and strengthen the resilience of row crop agriculture."
"When you work really hard, it's really cool when anybody takes notice of your work, but when it's the MacArthur Foundation, it's like, whoa," said Schulte Moore. "I guess people are watching and that's exciting."
According to the MacArthur Foundation website, the Fellows Program "is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations." The fellowships are awarded across a variety of fields and may be used by the fellows "to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers."
The fellowship comes with a "no strings attached" award of $625,000, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.
Schulte Moore, who was recently a guest on the Agweek Podcast, and a team of researchers and collaborating farmers created the STRIPS program, which stands for Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips.
"It's a concept that I started working on along with colleagues my very first semester at Iowa State University," said Schulte Moore
She said the idea was to integrate strips of prairie into the Midwest ecosystem currently dominated by corn and soybean agriculture, "to try to shore up some of the environmental impacts of corn and soybeans," which she said are highly productive crops.
"That's why farmers use corn and soybean cropping systems, but, you know, we also want to have clean water, and we want to keep our soil in place and grow more soil and provide habitat for our native biota," she said. "So the concept was just to kind of take the best of both, and try to put them together and see what happened."
She said a series of experiments showed that the concept really did work.
"If you put prairie in the right place in the landscape, that it really does help augment corn and soybeans in terms of addressing some of the environmental impacts," she said. "While farmers can still farm around it."
Schule Moore said she couldn't have done the work without a team of scientists and farmer cooperators.
"So while I got the named award, because of sort of some of the coordinating roles that I've played, it really is the the work of a team that's getting noted and getting the award," she said.
Schulte Moore grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, not far from her great grandmother's and great uncle's farm just south of town. She said the upbringing gave her a "real fondness for rural landscapes, rural people and agriculture."
A first-generation college graduate, Schulte Moore first pursued her interests in forestry in school. But when she landed and ISU, she "got hooked on agriculture."
"The deep passion for agriculture developed once I arrived here at Iowa State, and start learning more about agriculture, by attending field days, meeting farmers and just really enjoying that community," said Schulte Moore. "My love just really took blossom and my roots really grew in agriculture."
Her family now owns a part of her great-grandma's farm back in Wisconsin.
The MacArthur Foundation is known for honoring creative people, and Schulte Moore aligns with that.
"It comes naturally," she said of creativity. "I'm just naturally drawn to new ideas, and thinking outside the box and sometimes coloring outside the box, and sometimes that actually gets me in trouble. So it's nice to get an award to validate that, at least somebody appreciates that."
Faster than expected
Prairie strips are now on over 115,000 acres of cropland throughout 14 different states, and the federal Conservation Reserve Program recognized prairie strips as a conservation practice eligible for government financial support for the first time following the 2018 Farm Bill.
Schulte Moore said even she is surprised with that rate of expansion.
"It's gone much faster than I ever expected," she said. "To be honest, when we started talking about the idea of putting prairie in amongst corn and soybeans, the initial reaction from a lot of people was 'Why would you do that, that's crazy, and you're just going to create a weed problem for farmers.'"
2007 was when the initial experiment took place, she said, and 2013 was when they first started working with farmers on the idea.
"In 2012, if I went to a group and asked if anybody has heard of prairie strips — even at a conference with the agricultural audience — one or two people out of 100 might raise their hand," said Schulte Moore. "By 2018, if I had said that, just about the majority of people would raise their hand."
Schulte Moore said today, over 50% of Iowa farmers say they would consider putting prairie strips on their farms.
"When you look at the pace of change in any area of society, I think that's quite rapid," she said.