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Participatory Prairie Burning in the Flint Hills

By Sylvia Maria Gross


Kansas City, MO – Jan Jantzen grew up in a small town in Western Kansas.

I've always been an outdoors kid at heart, Jantzen says. And gave things names - trees and weeds and bushes, even when I didn't know what they were.

Jantzen eventually became a college administrator at Emporia State University, and then moved to Cincinatti to run the admissions office at Xavier University. But when he retired from academia, he returned to Kansas and bought a cattle ranch near Emporia, in the Flint Hills.

It's a region with the largest swath of original tallgrass prairie in the country. For thousands of years, animals have grazed on its natural grasses and wildflowers. And every few years, a lightening strike would burn the pastures down to ashes. The controlled burns release nutrients that help the grass to grow. It's an ecosystem that Native Americans and then modern ranchers like Jantzen have learned to help along with cattle and fire.

If we didn't burn and graze this area, Jantzen says, It would becom primarily a scrub forest, mainly with Eastern Red Cedars that wouldn't have much value for anything.

But the rising price of corn and other grains has put the squeeze on cattle ranchers in the midwest, who use grain to feed their livestock. So Jantzen has come up with some new ways to find value in the land and the ranching tradition, taking advantage of the drama of the elements.

When it was time to burn each spring, Jantzen used to just call over some friends, get some six-packs and make a party of it. But then friends would invite more friends. People from out of town would hear about it, and start scheduling vacations around Jan's prairie burn. Some even started offering to pay.

So Jantzen created this event called Flames in the Flint Hills, where guests pay 120 dollars each to help him burn his prairie. Anne de Montille brought her husband and four children. They're from Paris originally, but live in Kansas City now.

We talked to our friends, American friends in Kansas City, de Montille says. And they say what are you going to do? Burning what? But nobody does that - I say but OK, we are going to do it.

This year, there are 50 paying guests at Jantzen's burn. There's also a bluegrass band, and a caterer who serves local cheese curd and peach-glazed buffalo and barley meatballs out of a chuck wagon.

In the barn, Jantzen steps on a little stage and the guests sit on blocks of hay. He gives them a little history, science, and then some fire safety tips. It's important to me that everybody that came with hair and eyebrows leaves with the same amount of hair and eyebrows.

Jantzen's rule of thumb is to remember the colors black and blue. If the fire's heading at you, he says, go to an area that's black, because it's already been burned. If you can't get to some place black- go someplace blue, like a pond.

And with that, we're ready to set some fires. Jantzen hands out matches. People pick up their rakes and follow him past the ponds to one of his pastures. We line up along one edge of the pasture, with our backs to the wind. Jantzen tells us to pull the tall, dry Indian grass into little clumps for kindling.

Fire lighters are you ready? he calls. Light the fire!

It's windy, and the grass takes a few seconds to catch. But when it does, the fire-lighters use their rakes to drag it along the ground until it wooshes up into huge flames. In a minute or two, it's a true inferno, licking the sky 20 feet up, hotter and brighter than I expected.

Now some people here are old hands at this. Brian Keith is a local rancher; he's helping Jan out as a volunteer, and admits some locals think this is a little weird.

The older generation, really do think its awkward or odd that somebody would come pay for a experience like this, Brian says. But I think it's a great opportunity for them and it's also an opportunity for Jan to create a little income and educate the public at the same time.

There are people who criticize these burns. They say the smoke causes air quality problems. But Jantzen says prairie burns are essential to ranching - and he hopes these events will teach people where their food comes from..

And he also wants to show struggling farmers and ranchers other ways to make money off the land. He says most four-wheelers, tractors and combines have an exta seat in them these days. And that extra seat could be worth $100, to have a tourist ride along, see what it's like to harvest corn or wheat.

It's the end of the evening, and we're getting a little giddy surrounded by lines of flame and walking over the charred ground in between. As people are leaving, Jan still has work to do. He pulls up to the smoldering field in his four-wheeler, with a Miller Lite in hand.

I'm celebrating, Jantzen says. But he's not done yet. I see the possibility of some fenceposts that might be on fire so I'm going to go down, and put out some fenceposts.

See a slideshow of of the prairie burn at Jan Jantzen's farm. This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.

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