Project helps farmers sell native plants

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Oregon State University researcher Erik Feibert stands in front of a research plot near Ontario, Ore., that is being used to study native plants that farmers can grow for federal land-use agencies.

Plants used to restore fire-damaged lands in Great Basin

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

ONTARIO, Ore. -- A special project at Oregon State University's research station near here is providing farmers in the region with a new crop that's really not new at all: native plants.

The plants are grown by farmers who sell them to federal land-use agencies to restore lands in the Great Basin that have sustained fire or grazing damage. The plants are also used by the Natural Resource Conservation Service to restore or improve sage grouse habitat.

Because getting native plants to grow consistently in an agricultural setting can be a challenge, OSU researchers have been studying the most efficient and reliable growing practices.

"There is a long list of things that you have to deal with when you bring things into cultivation (and) farmers aren't going to want to take them on if they can't get a good, solid stand," said Nancy Shaw, a research botanist at the USDA's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Boise, which coordinates the Great Basin Native Plant Project for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM, the largest purchaser of seed for fire restoration, buys an average of 2 million pounds of seed per year.

The program includes about 20 plant varieties native to the Great Basin, which covers parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and California.

OSU researchers study a plethora of issues associated with growing native plants but focus on irrigation management and plant establishment, said Erik Feibert, an OSU researcher.

Because the seed is planted in the fall, soil compaction, dry soil and bird damage can make stand establishment a big problem, he said.

"We found that after planting the seed in the fall, covering it with row cover -- a white fabric that allows moisture and sunlight to get through but protects the soil from compaction and bird damage -- really helps," he said.

Because they're desert plants, they don't need near as much irrigation as many other farm commodities, Feibert said, but researchers have discovered that a few inches either way can make a significant difference.

"Some of them produce the most seed with 8 inches per season, some of them like 4 inches and for some of them zero irrigation is just as good as four or eight," he said.

Jerry Erstrom, who grows about 62 acres of native plants for federal land agencies near Vale, Ore., said the price for the materials is volatile, rising in years with lots of fire damage but tanking in years with few fires.

"Some years you can't give them away but some years they can be a very desirable commodity," he said. "If there's not a fire season, there's not a market."

To try to make the program more stable, the BLM plans to do more seed storage and take on proactive restorative efforts even during low fire years, said Paul Krabacher, national seed coordinator for the agency.

"We're trying to level the playing field out for growers and us," he said.

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