Washington — Photos taken by Kansas ranchers have caught the eye of curators of the Smithsonian Institution.
The art depicts the practice of burning prairie grasses, used to rejuvenate the pasture land. The photos were taken by Flint Hill ranchers Annie and John Wilson, who raise about 550 cattle near Emporia and view themselves as stewards of the land.
The Wilson's work is part of the exhibit "Listening to the Prairie: Farming in Nature's Image," which runs through March 31 and will later visit 20 cities. The exhibit shows ways farmers use, yet preserve, grassland in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Illinois.
"This is a great opportunity to let people know what a wonderful ecosystem the prairie is," Annie Wilson said. "Ranchers are not just raising beef; they are preserving open landscapes, conserving soil and water, and protecting species' diversity and wildlife habitats."
Smithsonian curators organized the exhibit with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tracing the evolution of the Flint Hills and other regions. It details ranching and farming techniques.
The tallgrass prairie on the Wilsons' 3,401 acres is burned every one to three years. The practice removes buildups of weeds and dead plants. Exposure to rain and sunlight promotes rapid regrowth.
"One of our main strategies is to burn as late in the spring as possible because then we can best control invasive or exotic species," Wilson said. "This is a nonchemical way of doing that."
She said nearly all the ranchers in Chase County practiced controlled burns, but she admits it could be an intimidating tool.
"It does take a lot of skill and courage, because the wind can change and you have to have a good idea what the fire is going to do," Wilson said.
Warning signs are posted along Interstate 35 through the Flint Hills after smoke from burning prairies contributed to a fatal accident.
USDA official selected the Wilsons for the exhibit because of their participation in a grant program several years ago to encourage profitable, environmentally friendly farm practices.
The Wilsons were part of a cooperative formed to raise cattle strictly on grassland rather than feedlots. The group was never large enough to be successful, but the Wilsons caught the eye of the USDA.
"They have a good story to tell," said Valerie Berton, USDA communications specialist.