Thursday, March 29, 2007

An Untapped and Very-Available Resource

OK, here is something I've been wondering about for a longggg time.

The use of public grass areas along roadways.

Part of my childhood was spent in Mississippi, and where we lived required driving if you wanted to get anywhere else. At that time, there were long stretches of highway split by long broad grassy areas. At some point, probably in the sweltering summer heat, I remember actually noticing those areas because they were a beautiful, softly undulating carpet of crimson clover. This imprinted indelibly on my impressionable mind. With few billboards as competition, and with long stretches of Nothing Much between populated areas, it was simply a beautiful sight.

Thankfully, and through some foresight on the parts of beautification committees in different areas of the country, the practice of planting attractive and useful ground covers or wildflowers has caught on. You'll know it if you are fortunate enough to live in one of these areas. Were it not for the probability of body-slamming insects with stingers, you'd just want to run out into one of those idyllic fields of blooms and extend your arms and fall backwards right into them. (I tried that in a farmer's wildflower patch once as a kid, though, and discovered the concept of Chiggers. I think they thought I was a free buffet.)

I absolutely love crimson clover and I also love long stretches of roadway planted in wildflowers.

I've been paying more attention to all the work that seems to go into maintaining these roadways, probably because of the little fine print on our yearly tax bill that makes me gape at its cost. I see the great equipment (state-of-the art!) they're using to keep those areas of grasses and weeds mowed, too. While stuck in nose-to-bumper rush hour traffic, those guys on the upgraded mowing machines are doing circle eights and having way too much fun zipping down the green stuff. Free suntan, too.

That led me to wonder why all that land goes to waste...literally. The old wrappers and cans that somehow drift to the road's edge despite the Litter Fee warning signs, also have to be picked up. Unless there's an "adopt-a-highway" group actively volunteering this on rotation, that cost goes into the tax burden, too.

And if you love grazing animals, especially domesticated livestock, AND if you've ever priced the cost of that good grazing land, you begin to see all that green green overgrown grass that extends on roadsides and median fields with a verrrrryyyyyyyyy different eye. (A somewhat Green eye??)

It was news to me that there are already areas, usually with difficult-to-maintain issues, where grazing animal herds are utilized for keeping the grasses and weeds down. There are herders who specialize in doing just that. Fascinating! It would seem that the cost of "rent-a-sheep" comes in well below the cost of humans doing it by hand or machine in those areas. Maybe it's being utililzed on a larger scale than I'm aware, but it's not being utilized along those hundreds of miles of highways in my area.

Why can't those areas be used for profitable and "green"-friendly purposes, since there is SO much of them? Here are some of the types of things I've thought of to use those areas for...I know there would be specific challenges to overcome with each, but with land as such a precious commodity, couldn't these things REALLY benefit our community, or at least be used to bring DOWN our taxes by adding to our cities' coffers?

Ideas for those long stretches of grass areas bordering/in the median of roadways:

1. Wildflowers, YES! already being done? Why not harvest the seeds for sale or re-sowing? Why not put honeybees in a fenced area here and there (for safety), or allow beekeepers to, and have loads of honey from it? Maybe not in the most congested and polluted roadways, but think of all those stretches of road that go through less-traveled areas.

2. Trees, trees, trees. Think of how this would offset the effects of pollution and emissions. I don't have statistics, but someone could come up with them.

3. Along that line of thinking further, what about income-producing trees?
Maples, for maple sugar.
Nut orchards.
Fruit orchards, where possible.
Woodlot trees for harvesting on a rotational basis every-so-many years for sale, lumber, pulpwood, etc.
Large stands of native trees for wildlife preservation.
A tree farm...raising starters-to saplings for reforestation elsewhere. Or saplings of species that take a long time to grow.
Ornamentals, preferably a good mix...for beauty and also their pollution-offset potential. This is being done somewhat in urban areas, such as the use of crape myrtles, etc, but I'm talking thick stands of them. Maintenance a worry? Let some sheep graze there with moveable fencing?

4. Moveable fencing and small livestock. WHY isnt all that grass being EATEN??

5. Easy crops. There's the land, folks. If you have to drive off the road because Dude-in-the-Semi is barreling down on you too fast, how about a great buffer of cornfield, or beanfield, or miles and miles of blueberry bushes?? What if people could feel free to pick-your-own in certain areas? What about growing flowers for cutting, or bulbs for sale, or niche crops like ginseng or ginger or echinacea or elderberry?

6. Grains. Like I said, this is prime cropland. Make it sustainable and use organic sense, but grains could be grown. How about non-altered grains? How about harvesting can't cost more than what's spent on those mowers and machines that mow grass with NO profit as a result. They could be sold as feed for humans or animals, or at the very least, hay.

7. Hay. Its own category. This seems to me to be the easiest one yet, for the less-adventurous. That should really cut down on all those hay shortages.

8. Here's a big one. Crops for alternative fuel manufacture. That's a lot of land out there for the politicians who are of the Can't-Do mindset. I don't know HOW any of these ideas would be implemented, but surely if we can put a man on the moon and clone things, someone can figure out how to do this.

9. In certain areas, make it a wind farm. No, I'm not meaning cramming turbines-on-towers across America's picturesque heartland, but here and there, why not do it for supplementing or replacing existing power sources?

10. Butterfly plants, grown in a naturalized way. Think of the peaceful and healing experience this would be in areas where there is not quite so heavy traffic.

11. OK, I know nothing about this subject, but surely along hilly or incline areas there could be man-made streams whose downhill force could move baffles and power small energy collectors. (Sorry, don't know the official word for those)

12. Harvesting the sun. I'd only want this if it could be done aesthetically, because we don't need one more nasty piece of stark technology to stare at. But if moveable solar panels or some such thing could be used, think of the very large areas that could harvest the sun.

13. Sunflowers. For so many reasons. But mainly because I think they're beautiful! (ha) They raise sunflowers in many parts of the world en masse. I saw them in Eastern Europe growing hundreds of acres at a stretch. They're useful for oil, fodder, so many things. And So beautiful. And therefore deserving of their own category ;-)

14. Coppicing. Growing large stands of trees such as hazelnuts or willow whose branches can be harvested at a certain growth stage for many uses, and then the plant regrows new ones in a recurrent cycle of harvest and regrowth.

15. The Hedgerow concept. Fast-growth and mixed plantings that will grow very tall, providing much needed shade, pollution off-set, wildlife habitat, and privacy, as well as being very good for the soil in that it reduces the wind's tendency to make certain areas a dustbowl or too arid for many things to grow. These would form dense "walls" of green and also would be a safety measure for cars that run astray.

16. Non-profit organizations "adopting" certain areas (by a drawing? permit?) for use in doing any of the above.

17. Depending upon the access conditions, community gardens.

18. Additional pasture rental to existing farmers. I'm thinking about those large areas near bridges and overpasses, requiring a big big triangle of land in between. Any areas that are large enough to be fenced but are never pedestrian areas or close to the side of the road. All that wasted pasture...

Ok, there are so many more, and I know this sounds like my fairy-tale world, except it's not really because in my fairy-tale world there would be no long commutes and everyone would have land for their own mini-farms.

Lah-luh-lah-luh-laaaaahhhh....(happy little mind dance)...well, guess what? All the great solutions in the world had to start SOMEWHERE. :)

Many of these are probably being done in different places, but I'm just not aware of it.

What ideas do you have for how these areas could be used?

How about one lonnnnggggggg open-air local farmer's market?? :)

Uh oh. I hear wind chimes ringing briskly. I'm guessing the raccoon is doing gymnastics to get to the bird feeder (see prior post...feeder and wind chimes are attached to same shepherd's-crook plant post). I better see what's up before he decides my newly planted flats are open for exploration, too...

1 comment:

e4 said...

I think I read somewhere that even after two decades of unleaded gasoline, there's still unsafe levels of lead in the soil near many roadways. So that might rule out the food-related ideas.

But you're absolutely right about doing something with that space. Not every square inch of open space has to be turned into mowed grass! The potential is huge...