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The state stopped mowing. Now this Illinois man has a wonderland of wildflowers

In this July 10, 2018 photo, A monarch butterfly lights atop a blazing star at Jim Barker's farm in rural in McLeansboro, Ill. Barker has transformed his property into small patches of prairie that resemble what Hamilton County would have looked like before modern agriculture. | Les Winkeler/The Southern, via AP

MCLEANSBORO, Ill. — Jim Barker’s pickup truck bounced slowly across a field on his Hamilton County farm.

Without saying a word, Barker stepped on the brake and gazed out the window at acres of wild bergamot, purple coneflowers and blazing star. Rather than planting set-aside land in fescue, Barker has transformed his property into small patches of prairie that resemble what Hamilton County would have looked like before modern agriculture.

Amazingly, the idea of turning his farm into a floral wonderland was born of the state’s financial crisis.

“When the state ran out of money and quit mowing, a lot of flowers popped out,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’d like to have some of those.’ That’s how I got started. That was probably 2010, somewhere in there.”

In the intervening years, about 50 acres have been transformed into an artist’s palette of color, ranging from the golden yellows of black-eyed Susans, the deep reds of Cardinal plants and rich oranges of butterfly milkweed.

Barker’s curiosity with flowers has advanced to hobby and maybe avocation. Several guidebooks on native flowers and another tome on invasive species are part of the accouterments of his pickup.

The pride in his creation is obvious. Several times during the unofficial tour, Barker pulled out his cellphone to show pictures of flowers that have already bloomed this spring or will be blooming in the next several months.

“After work, I like coming out here like every day,” he said.

Through the spring and summer months there is always something in season.

While growing the prairie flowers isn’t as intensive as row crops, there is a good deal of work involved.

“Trying to keep the invasive species out, the Russian olive, Korean lespedeza,” Barker said. “The flowers … I burn them every year. I’ll read a lot of books and they recommend burning probably eight years in a row to keep the weeds out.

“I’ll collect the seeds every year. Some of them bloom at different times. I’ll come here with a bucket and I’ll just shake them. Some of them will drop seeds and some won’t. I’ll do it again in about a week.”

Although the flowers are perennials, he puts the seeds back into the field to augment Mother Nature’s production. And, each spring brings a new surprise as to which flowers emerge and the density of each species.

“It’s different every year,” Barker said. “Sometimes they’ll be here, sometimes they won’t. The weather has a lot to do with it.”

In the meantime, the fields are a boon to wildlife. Bees, butterflies and moths were abundant throughout his fields. Barker said the fields are full of rabbits and quail, and wild turkeys frequently feed among the grasses and flowers.

“I do hunt over it,” he said. “I don’t have a bird dog. I have a neighbor, he has bird dogs. When he wants to come over, we’ll hunt.”

Barker acknowledged the benefit to wildlife and the allure of returning the area to its original state, but aesthetics seem to be the bottom line.

“I just kind of like the looks really,” he said. “I have probably 40-50 different flowers and they’ll bloom all different times of the year.”