Prairie passion earns Irvine 2022 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year

A passion for prairie and generosity helped earn Cathy Irvine of Dysart, Iowa, 2022 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year. Irvine stands in a 77-acre prairie – land she gifted to the Tallgrass Prairie Center in Cedar Falls – to develop and manage. Irvine Prairie is open to the public. (Photo by Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS)

A commitment to creating wildlife habitat on her farm and sharing it with others led Cathy Irvine of Dysart to be named 2022 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year at the Conservation Districts of Iowa Annual Conference today in Ames.

Like many widowed farmwives, Irvine felt overwhelmed with what to do with her farm after the death of her husband, David, in 2016. After considering what he would have wanted and their shared passion, Irvine decided to gift 77 acres of her 460-acre farm to be restored to native prairie.

Dr. Laura Jackson, Director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and Professor of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), and the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) nominated Irvine – a retired special education teacher for the Waterloo Community Schools.

Irvine donated the 77-acre area – which is easily visible from her farmstead – to the UNI Foundation after the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) established a conservation easement on the land. The Tallgrass Prairie Center at UNI will continue the long-term management of what is now called Irvine Prairie.

Irvine said she wanted to do something to keep David’s presence on the farm. “Prairie was one of our fascinations,” she said. “It just seemed like a natural fit that some of what David had stay as farmland and parts would revert to prairie.”

Cathy Irvine holds a feather she found in the woods behind her late mother-in-law Viola Mehlhaus Irvine’s 310 Sherman Street home in Dysart last August. Cathy has been working for several years to turn the woodlands behind the home into a nature preserve for the city – she finally saw the results of her work this past Friday, April 29, during the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve dedication ceremony. --Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

The Tallgrass Prairie Center began the prairie restoration in 2018. Justin Meissen, Research and Restoration Program Manager for the Tallgrass Prairie Center, separated the piece of ground into five sections – developing a new seeding every year.

The prairie is open to the public, and Irvine says her goal for the area is to be educational. “Having the university involved with the research and students being a part of it – even at the high school and elementary levels – is a natural fit for me,” she said.

Jackson says UNI students have been involved in the restoration and management of Irvine Prairie, including prairie burns, preparing custom seed mixes, and transplanting each year. “They help monitor the vegetation as it develops and assist with weed control,” said Jackson. “We have also had students conduct undergraduate research on the site under the direction of UNI biology faculty.

Irvine mows the Irvine Prairie parking area and the firebreaks and has collected native plant seeds in the roadside ditch to be grown in the Tallgrass Prairie Center greenhouse. “Basically, she has been an incredible partner in this process,” said Jackson.

In 2020, Irvine worked with Dysart-native artist Adam Eikamp to paint a native prairie mural on the 60-foot silo on her farmstead. The mural includes a large monarch butterfly, the State Tree of Iowa (Bur Oak), the State Flower of Iowa (Prairie Rose), and the State Bird of Iowa (American Goldfinch).

Cathy Irvine (left) and Laura Walter (right) speak with a group of North Tama Middle School students during their field trip to Irvine Prairie in rural Dysart. Irvine donated the land for the 77 acre reconstructed prairie preserve, while Walter helps manage the preserve. -Photo by Soren M. Peterson

The silo mural has become a landmark on her farm. “I didn’t know Adam before this but was told he would be the perfect person to paint it since he is from Dysart,” said Cathy. “I told him I wanted some native prairie on it, but he far exceeded my expectations. He really did his research.”

Earlier this year, Irvine donated a wooded, 2-acre parcel of land to the city of Dysart for the creation of the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve. She has been working with the city’s tree board to clean it up and develop a trail for public access.

“It has been a joy to work with Cathy to pursue our common vision of a place where people can come to see what Iowa once looked like, prior to European settlement,” said Jackson. “We are learning something new every year and enjoy how the prairie changes constantly.”

To read more about Irvine Prairie, visit tallgrassprairiecenter.org/irvine-prairie.

The Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year is selected annually by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Federal Women’s Program Committee. Nominations forms are available at http://cdiowa.org/recognition/awards/

Farmer, retired teacher, and conservationist Cathy Irvine (right) and her dog Ducky walk toward a group of Union High School students transplanting seedlings during a field trip to Irvine Prairie on May 26. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker