Undomesticated plants prove difficult to cultivate
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The wildfires that swept across parts of the West this summer caused widespread destruction of rangeland and habitat, but they also created a spike in demand for the native seed needed to revitalize the charred landscape.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management bought more than 1.9 million pounds of native seed in 2012, roughly triple the amount purchased in 2011 and nearly five times the amount purchased in 2010.
"It has impacted the market. It has consumed significant pounds and reduced our inventory," said Mark Mustoe, owner and manager of Clearwater Seed in Spokane, Wash. "In almost all cases, it's moved the price up."
Demand for native grass and forb species is likely to increase along with the frequency of blazes on public lands in the West, which have become more vulnerable to fire, said Paul Krabacher, national seed coordinator for the BLM.
Cheatgrass, a noxious weed, has been expanding on rangelands that were traditionally dominated by sagebrush and experienced longer periods of calm between catastrophic fires, he said.
"We're a very reactive agency to fire rehab," Krabacher said.
The agency spent nearly $26 million on seed in 2012 -- an amount that would have been even higher if not for a spending cap, he said.
This year's wildfires coincided with the USDA enrolling more acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, which offers financial incentives for planting grasses instead of crops and gives priority to native species, said Jerry Benson, president of BFI Native Seeds in Moses Lake, Wash.
Established native seed growers are in an advantageous position to benefit from spikes in demand, as the difficulty of producing such crops hinders others from jumping into the market and flooding it, he said.
"It's not something that somebody will bounce in and out of like corn or wheat," Benson said.
Prior to the recent surge in demand, however, the appetite for native seed was weak among the federal agencies that buy most of the niche crop, he said.
"Sometimes they're asking for unattainable amounts, sometimes they're asking for miniscule amounts," Benson said.
Native seed growers say the industry depends on natural disasters and the decisions of government agency managers, which makes predicting demand even trickier than with crops subject to more regular market cycles.
"We threw away a lot of seed over the years because it can only keep for so long," said Kevin Loe, owner of Triangle Farms in Silverton, Ore. "It's definitely not a get-rich-quick deal, that's for sure."
On their face, the prices involved in native seed production can make the niche industry seem deceptively lucrative.
Native grasses typically fetch $3 to $4 per pound, which is substantially higher than for mainstream grass seed crops like perennial ryegrass, which sells for 75 cents per pound, Loe said.
Scarcer native wildflower seeds can sell for $55 per pound or as much as $260 per pound if they're low-yielding or must be harvested by hand, said Lynda Boyer, native plant manager at Heritage Seedlings in Salem.
"When people are looking at price, they have to think about how it's being produced," she said.
Government agencies are increasingly pushing farmers to collect native species close to the intended restoration projects, officials and producers say. The goal is to produce site-specific seed that's acclimated to where it will be planted.
"It's good to have that wild impact," said Jarod Jebousek, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who conducts restoration work.
The problem for farmers is they can't reliably predict exactly where or when future restoration projects will take place, he said. "It's tricky because we're dealing with federal or state budgets, and these aren't always reliable."
Site-specific seed demand adds complexity for farmers, who would generally prefer to grow a large field of a species rather than numerous smaller ones that must be managed separately, said Craig Edminster, president of Pacific Northwest Natives in Albany, Ore.
"It's very difficult to produce small plots of this stuff economically," he said.
Aside from the expense, the practicality of this type of production becomes a major limiting factor when trying to restore major landscapes that have been burned, said Mustoe.
"It's an impossibility to work like that on a large scale, especially when you don't know where the fire will be," he said.
Unlike commercial crops, the biology of native species generally isn't as conducive to efficient production and harvest, said Rob Fiegener, director of the Native Seed Network, a program within a conservation nonprofit.
"They haven't been domesticated," he said. "They're wild plants. They're not uniform crops that are easy to cultivate."
For example, the seeds of a native species of plant may mature over a longer period of time, complicating the timing of harvest, he said. "The readiness of your crop might be all over the place."
Waiting for seed production can also drive up production expenses. For example, the camas plant must grow several years before flowering, Loe said.
In other cases, native seeds must be prompted to germinate with heat or other conditions, while weed species have no such needs, he said. "A lot of these seeds have dormancy triggers. They don't compete very well."
As there's often a dearth of agronomic expertise about native plants, growers must experiment to devise solutions to such problems.
Loe, for example, successfully improved the germination of a native species by soaking the seeds in a hot tub for a month to imitate warm mud.
"There's just not a lot of information on this stuff," he said.
Boyer of Heritage Seedlings grows some native species over a ground cloth that captures seeds as they fall from the plant.
Seeds that remain on the plants are harvested with a swather, while the fallen seeds are swept up and collected. The added effort is well worth it, as fewer seeds are lost.
"We're able to quadruple our yields," Boyer said.
Mechanical harvest of some native grass seeds is impeded by barbs, hairs and other unusual characteristics, said Lee Arbuckle, founder of Native Seedsters, which makes native seed-specific harvesting implements.
Combines are more likely to be plugged by such seeds, so Arbuckle designed an implement that better accommodates their features. The machine, which attaches to a tractor's loader arms, relies on counter-rotating cylinders -- a comb that picks up the seed and a brush that dislodges it.
"It imitates your socks," Arbuckle said.
The implement avoids harvesting immature seed, allowing farmers to make multiple passes, and it's geared toward quick changes from one type of seed to another, he said. "We purposely designed it to be really easily cleaned out."