CHAMPAIGN – Forty years ago, Parkland College bought 137 acres of Jeff Bruninga's family's land, ending that centennial family farming operation.
It was the second eminent domain action taken against the 160-acre farm his ancestors started in 1859, when they broke down on their way west from Indiana.
When Interstate 57 was built, also in the 1960s, the government took several acres of land, isolating the 17 acres left in family hands.
Jeff Bruninga has been waiting for years to do the right thing on that triangle of land, and he's in the middle of a transformation. Instead of continuing to rent the fields to a farmer to grow corn and soybeans, he's paying money to expert Peter Schramm, a retired Knox College biologist, who is turning it into a prairie.
"McMillen Ehler 1859, prairie restored 2005," reads a sign just posted on the property
"We've been interested in turning this into a prairie for a long time, but we didn't have control of the land for a long time," he said. "It's hard to convince people used to farming to turn ground into prairie. They ask, 'How much am I going to make per acre?' Instead, you spend money."
Bruninga, a Park Forest resident, worked as a painter for years but he's now making a documentary about his prairie project and two others in the state, one at the former Joliet Arsenal and the other at Loda Cemetery. Its title: "Fire on the Prairie."
"My intent is to educate people about restoration and to create a guide about how to do it," he said. "We look at this prairie as our heritage and when we go, we're going to give it to the Nature Conservancy. We're all interested in natural ecosystems. "
Bruninga's partners are his brothers Kim of Park Forest and Barry of Anchorage, Alaska.
One recent afternoon, Schramm seeded 3.5 acres of the land with his own special mixture of grass seed mixed with wildflower seeds.
"Originally 80 percent of Illinois was grass," said Schramm, who went into business, after he retired from Knox College, seeding prairies all over the state. "There were more than 150 species of grasses growing here. Less than one-hundreth of 1 percent is left."
He modified an old planter to seed fluffy prairie seed, and he varies the mixture to fit the terrain, putting more grass and fewer flowers in some areas and the reverse in others.
A successful prairie chokes out weeds because the ground is so full of roots, but beginning prairies need to be burned every year or two to get rid of "aliens," he said.
Schramm uses a wide gene pool for his seed. He plants six to 20 prairies a year, always in June, and his work is found in almost every state park in Illinois.
Schramm treasures the prairie wildlife, including 2,000 different kinds of insects, many different resident and visiting birds and small mammals like least weasels. He said orange butterfly weed now in bloom and other species will attract different kinds of butterflies.
He's proud to see pale purple coneflowers with dark centers thriving on the plot. "That's an indicator of a good prairie," Schramm said.
"It's amazing what's happened in two years," Bruninga said of the older prairie, one of the highest spots in Champaign County where plants like resin weed, quinine and compass plant also grow.
He invites classes from the University of Illinois and from adjacent Parkland College to visit the site. Parkland biology instructor Heidi Leuszler, a former student of Schramm's, said Schramm "got the prairie in my blood."
"I'm from Colorado, the mountains, and he taught me to appreciate the prairie landscape," she said. "He also taught me how to identify plants and insects and animal communities, how to burn and how to restore prairies. He taught me what a prairie really is, the ecology."
Leuszler plans to take her environmental and plant biology students to visit Bruninga's prairie this fall to pass those lessons along.
Bruninga said part of the family's mission is to help people who are used to seeing corn and soybeans planted everywhere appreciate the prairie's role in the ecosystem.
"Now people drive by and see it and they think it's not a good farm," he said.