Native plant growers face many challenges

by Stephanie Paige Ogburn

Up at Jerry Benson's native seed farm in central Washington, during harvest season, workers walk through fields sticking tiny vacuums up into what looks like a crop of bridal veils. Those veils, made out of a tulle-like netting, keep Benson's precious phlox seeds -- which tend to explode out of their seed cases -- from escaping. Benson grows and sells seeds for restoration in sagebrush steppe ecosystems; his seeds are often used by federal land agencies after fires.

In recent years, land-management agencies have increasingly sought to use native seeds for post-fire seeding. It's an admirable goal, but finding the right kind of natives in sufficient quantities has proven a challenge. Part of the problem lies in how native seeds are produced. Seeds are often grown in fields and harvested, just like corn or wheat. The challenge to growers, though, is that unlike typical crops, these plants have not been bred for high yields or easy harvest.

For example, some wildflowers require a lot of manual labor: "We harvest individual flowers off of plants multiple times during their maturing process, because they just don't mature uniformly," Benson says.

And each time a grower takes on a new seed, Benson adds, he must learn how to grow it -- whether it needs to freeze over the winter, receive moisture at a certain time of year, or even have bridal veil-style bags tied around its seedheads come harvest time.

These complications have limited the number of native seed growers, which usually means that when land agencies come looking for seed, there's not enough available. An even smaller number of seed farmers are willing to risk growing new types of natives for harvest, says Nancy Shaw, a Boise-based Forest Service scientist who heads up the Great Basin Native Plant Selection and Increase Project.

"We've been working on (producing hard-to-grow wildflower seed) for seven-plus years, and this is possibly the year where we will sell most everything we have," says Benson. "But seven years is a fairly long time between paychecks."

The Bureau of Land Management is working to improve the seed market for native growers and its own storage capacity for seeds used in restoration, says Paul Krabacher, national seed coordinator for the agency. Currently, the BLM's sole seed warehouse in Boise holds far less than annual agency needs, at just 800,000 pounds of seed (mixed native and nonnative).

In 2007, a big burn year, the agency purchased well over 7 million pounds of seed, 60 percent of those natives -- at a high cost, since their increased demand drove up prices for seeds used in restoration. Krabacher gives an example from this year: A common variety of bluebunch wheatgrass typically sells for $4-$5 a pound, but its price is now around $20 per pound. The agency's goal is to stabilize seed purchases at 3 million pounds yearly, which would also even out its costs for those seeds, says Krabacher. To do this, it is expanding its warehouse capacity by building another storage facility in Ely, Nev., to house another million pounds of seeds. That facility will also be focused on storing seed from plants grown to succeed in the drier environments of the Mojave and lower Great Basin, Krabacher adds.

This will help fix another problem, which is that many of the seed producers growing natives used in Great Basin restoration are located in states outside the area, like Montana or Washington. A BLM employee might need seeds to restore a burned area outside of Winnemucca, where average yearly rainfall is below 10 inches. But in the aridity of the Great Basin, those seeds –– produced by plants from a wetter northern climate -- might not survive.

University of Nevada ecologist Beth Leger, who is researching which native plants work best in Great Basin restoration, worked on a project where she had planted a variety of Poa secunda and some Snake River wheatgrass grown up in Washington. She got them to grow, but they weren't setting seed: "I talked to a breeder and he was like, oh yeah, that's because they need some late-season moisture to release that seed. And I was like, did you hear what you just said? (In the Great Basin), they're not going to get late-season moisture to set seed. And so even if you can get them to grow from seed, that's the end of the road. It's just like Astroturf at that time; it's not a functioning plant."

Because of this year's expansive fires, the BLM is readying to make one of its biggest one-time seed buys ever, at 3.5 million pounds, says Krabacher. Right now, it is "imperative to get seed on the ground to compete with cheatgrass," he says. But until the agency has enough storage capacity to give it a cushion for bad burn years -- a cushion that will also help growers -- it may be left with too few natives to plant when it most needs them, leaving managers with a smaller chance of success in restoring native plant communities.

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