We’re in Santa Fe, New Mexico at a “national” native seed conference. National is parenthesized because the conference is sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and managed by the Institute for Applied Ecology both based in the western US. Few attendees hale from states east of the Missouri River. I attended a Milkweed Symposium sponsored by the Xerces Society, also a western non-profit, to learn more about milkweed seed production. Unbelievably, milkweed seems to be a pest magnet when it’s planted in production plots: aphids, rust, fungal diseases, and more. With the advent of Round-up Ready crops, milkweed populations have declined 58% in the midwest, once a bastion of larval host plants for monarch butterflies. Needless to say monarch populations have fallen over the past 10 ten years due to declining overwintering habitat and loss of milkweed. To what degree each has contributed I cannot say but the coincidence is alarming. My interest is selling seed and developing a native pollinator mix that will serve the needs of many insects. The exciting news is that the Xerces Society will soon advocate for the lowly thistle, a pollinator power flower.
The meeting was also interesting in that it brought producers of varying skill and motivation. Clearly for some, the milkweed is another product to market while others see it is an endeavor to increase biodiversity in the landscape and preserve a charismatic species: the monarch butterfly. As the conference continues I’m noticing a divide between the ecologists and geneticists who promote genetic diversity and are interested primarily in restoration activities versus the producers of native seed who adhere to agronomic practices which are to select plants for vigor, hardiness, seed production, or other desirable traits and to eliminate competition. Agriculture tends toward increasing simplification while healthy ecosystems tend towards greater diversity or adaptation to environmental niches at various scales. The two groups seem to be at loggerheads sometimes.
One thing that worries me is my own ignorance of the interactions of various organisms within a prairie. For example: yesterday I learned that side oats grama is a host plant for certain types of rust that afflict milkweed. Last year I noticed rust on some of our compass plants just downhill from a band of side oats. Below the compass plant is a band of big bluestem. Either of them could be part of the rust cycle affecting our compass plant. This year I will pay more attention to the health of those rusty compass plants: do they flower? do they set viable seed? We have so much to learn. If the rust simply reduces the amount of seed we will proceed; if the rust eventually kills the plants we will start over using a different planting configuration.
Production plots are desirable because they “simplify” and accelerate the harvesting process but health of the plants may suffer because they are concentrated, more easily located by pests, and sharing disease more rapidly due to proximity. I dreamed of native seed plots while working for Prairie Plains Resource Institute and wondering if the seed I harvested really offset all of the miles driven to obtain it. There has to be a better way, a way to combine plots with restoration so the plots are mixed, more diverse and maybe more resistant to disease and predation. That was my dream. So far what I’ve observed is no, our mixed bands are not performing significantly better than the intensive production methods of the professional seedsmen (and yes, so far they are all men). That doesn’t mean I will give up on them it just means we need to try other methods: planting into cover crops to reduce weed pressure (my sister will like this!), rotating from forbs to grasses and vice versa, and every year planting small bands of our best sellers: shell-leaf penstemon and stiff sunflower, preferably collected from different remnant populations. And the most radical change: plant these bands up and down the slope rather than across it. The purpose of this will be to enhance the genetic fitness of what we grow. The top of the plot field is fairly level, the mid-slope faces west and is super well-drained and the lower end levels out with much more available moisture. We should harvest the same species from all of these microclimates to preserve as many traits as possible. More ideas to come…