Cash Crop: Native Grasses
Throughout the West, farmers' fields are covered in tall grass. That's not neglect - it's profitable. Native grass seed is currently in high demand due to a regional trend to restore damaged land, especially around oil and natural gas development, burned forests and grasslands, roads, and overgrazed areas.
On June 19, 2007, the Denver Post reported: "An ambitious restoration project on the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado has created a large market for specific native plants to reseed areas trampled by overgrazing or charred by wildfires: More than 50 species have been identified there as critical for deer habitat. Mesa Verde National Park is working to reseed burned areas with genetically identical native plants."
The story continues: "And the Bureau of Land Management alone needs 1 million to 3 million pounds of seed annually in the Western states, depending on numbers of wildfires. In the past, much of that has come from Canada and Northwestern states in the form of generic wheatgrass. 'If we have a choice, nearly all the grass seed we buy would be native,' said Scott Lambert, national BLM seed coordinator. ...Some seed can bring up to $100 per pound, and a good year can bring 100 pounds per acre." Denver Post piece. BLM: Scott Lambert, 208-373-3894.
While prairie grasses have been popular in Midwestern land management and landscaping for several years, the idea of farming native grasses and other native plants for restoration is a relative newcomer to western agriculture. Here are some resources for covering this emerging farm and environmental story:
- The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA) is a coalition of 10 key federal agencies and over 200 experts (mostly scientists), focused on restoring native habitats and preventing native plant species extinctions: 202-452-0392. This is a good first stop to find out about farming and other programs in your state, and to get contacts.
- Subscribe to the main PCA e-mail announcement and discussion list (anyone can join) to see what's of current interest to experts and practitioners in this field. There's also a public mailing list for PCA's restoration project working group.
Matching native plant species correctly to growing sites and restoration projects can be very tricky business. PCA's expert database can help you find good sources to help you evaluate the scientific and environmental soundness of specific seed-farming or restoration projects.
Another federal interagency program, Seeds of Success, supports and coordinates seed collection for native plants. The SOS program guides the selection of new native plant species needed to stabilize, rehabilitate, and restore public lands; provides documentation of where these plant materials can be found and managed; and provides seed quality and germination information. Program contacts. Photo gallery. You can search this database of native plants by region and other variables.
- The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin offers a searchable national database of native seed suppliers. Suppliers in your region may put you in touch with local native-grass farmers. This site also offers a photo gallery.
- State departments of agriculture often have conservation offices involved in coordinating or overseeing seed farming of native species.National Association of State Depts. of Agriculture.
- Seed control officials, by state.
- State offices of USDA's Farm Service Agency, which implements the Conservation Reserve Program, may be able to tell you about local native grass-farming efforts.
Native grasses may have other markets besides restoration projects. This USDA research project, which concludes in 2008, is investigating various ways native grasses can be used to increase farm income, including using them for biofuel feedstock; Stephen Griffith; or George Mueller Warrant.