By SEAN ELLIS
ONTARIO, Ore. -- Oregon State University researchers have discovered that using row covers in the fall and winter is the best way to help native plants and grasses establish a stand.
That's important information for the increasing number of farmers in the Pacific Northwest who are growing native plant seed for federal land-use agencies who need it to restore large areas of land following wildfires.
"Stand establishment and weed control are the two toughest things for me," says Jerry Erstrom, who grows seven different species of native plant seed on about 90 acres in Vale, Ore.
The research station began conducting native plant production trials eight years ago at the urging of federal land-use agencies, who depend on growers for the seed.
Many of the 50 or so growers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington who grow the seed for Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and highway districts, depend on the research being conducted by OSU.
The station is growing about 40 different native plant species.
"They've been willing to take on a lot of new species that have never been grown in an agricultural situation before so there is no recipe for growing them," says Nancy Shaw, a research botanist at the USDA's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Boise, which coordinates the Great Basin Native Plant Project for BLM and Forest Service.
Establishing a stand is probably the biggest problem farmers face with growing native plant seed, says OSU researcher Erik Feibert, who oversees the native plant trials.
A lot of the plants have extremely small seed that has trouble growing through hardened soil that crusts over the winter, he says, and birds love the small seedlings that come up in the spring.
OSU researchers have tried several ways to help with stand establishment, including covering some rows with small layers of sawdust or sand and planting seeds at different depths.
But row covers -- six-foot wide sheets of white fabric that are permeable to water and placed over the ground in the fall and winter-- have proven to be the most effective means of helping with plant establishment, Feibert says.
He says the covers protect the seed from bird damage and also help maintain a more uniform soil moisture level and temperature, which helps prevent soil crusting.
"Row covers are definitely really important for stand establishment," Feibert says.
Market demand and prices for native plant seed are high following bad fire seasons but tank following mild fire years, which makes growing the crops a high-risk business for farmers, Erstrom says.
"In the even of a quiet fire season, there's little or no demand," he says.
To try to stabilize the market, Shaw says the BLM, the largest purchaser of seed for fire restoration, is trying to increase its storage capacity "so they can buy more seed during slow years and stockpile it for years when they need a lot of seed. That will help with prices, too."