Native Seed Conference – Monday thoughts

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…

 

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Understanding place, or, my mistake

My sister and I grew up in Illinois surrounded by cornfields.  Before I left the state I volunteered briefly with the Natural Land Institute in Rockford and visited some land they owned and managed.  One piece was remnant savannah: red oaks, burr oaks, and hackberry trees crowding a rocky slope and scattering over the top into a grassland.  I studied native communities at the University of Illinois, taking field botany and working for a professor who stressed the importance of using native plant materials for landscape design.  My prairie experiences in Illinois and Wisconsin were always framed by trees.

When we visited relatives in Nebraska, we occasionally drove by the farm.  The fellow who rented it grew corn every year and kept cattle in the pasture.  When I moved to Nebraska and interned with the Soil Conservation Service first in Lincoln, then in Salina, Ks,  I visited the pasture more often and paid more attention to what was growing there.  Most of it seemed to be smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and weeds like musk thistle, hemp (grown during World War I for rope), and ragweed.  A few volunteer trees struggled to survive.

Kristin and our grandmother posing in front of musk thistle, a noxious weed in Nebraska

Kristin and our grandmother posing in front of musk thistle, a noxious weed in Nebraska

The 80’s were very dry.  The renter’s cows grazed from May through September.  Falling back on the notion of prairie formed in Illinois, I decided we should plant trees.  The Natural Resources District had a wildlife habitat cost share program for  tree planting.  My father was easily convinced this was a good idea because his father had been a windbreak advocate.  The large row of cottonwoods separating the pasture from the corn was established by he and his brothers in the 1940’s and it was in decline.  That row is visible in the background of the photograph above.

pasture88clip

The original planting plan for the pasture with deciduous trees filling the swales.

As a newly educated landscape architect I had to “design” something more than a windbreak, more than a frame around the place.  I asked the soil conservationist if we could pull the deciduous trees out of the windbreak and plant them in the drainage ways where they would have more access to moisture.  I knew enough to realize most of the trees planted on the hills would not survive.  From a visual and functional standpoint I thought it was very important to draw on the contours of the place, literally.  So we planted 150 honey locust, 100 green ash, and 264 hackberry along the invisible currents of drainage swales.

In 1989 I sat in the planter's seat behind this tractor and planted trees!

In 1989 I sat in the planter’s seat behind this tractor and planted trees!

Nearly 3,000 trees were planted on 6 acres in 1989.  Along with the 2,900 planted by tree plow, my sister and I hand planted 50 burr oaks on Easter Sunday, 1989.  We carried them in a 5 gallon bucket half filled with water and planted them anywhere that looked like a good spot: on top of hills, on slopes, or in a draw.

One requirement of the wildlife habitat program was that the cows had to go: no grazing.  The transformation over time was stunning.  To this day I don’t know if I missed some of the wildflowers because I wasn’t there at the right time, if they were suppressed by grazing, or the drought knocked them back.  Likely it was all of these.  To date I have documented 50 forbs, 10 grasses and 3 sedges and I’m still learning (inventory page)  The wildlife habitat program may have been the best thing for prairie recovery in the pasture…

…Except for the trees, and the plums, and the abundant moisture in the 1990’s when work took me to the southeastern US and I rarely ventured out to the farm.  The trees that escaped gnawing by rabbits, rubbing by deer, and death from insufficient moisture grew rapidly.  Below is an aerial photograph of the pasture taken in 2009.  The planting pattern (revised from the original plan) is clearly seen from 10,000 feet.  This taken after we started removing them because I realized my mistake: trees don’t really belong here.  Illinois prairies differ from these in Nebraska.  It’s easier to transplant a household than your surroundings.  And part of the joy of moving to a different part of the country is learning what forces shape the local landscape and foster the plant and animal communities dependent on them.

09pasture

What’s wrong with trees you may ask?  Most of the prairie species in our area are sun lovers and the trees have grown to the point where some of these rows throw a considerable amount of shade on adjacent slopes.  One plant that withstands shade is smooth brome, so in the battle of cool versus warm season grasses, shade helps brome win.  Smooth brome was introduced to this country by settlers needing more reliable spring and fall pastures for grazing herds.  When the pond was built in the late 1940’s, the dam was reseeded with smooth brome.  I also think brome and Kentucky bluegrass were overseeded at least once after the level parts of the pasture were cultivated early in the 20th century and then abandoned.  Another problem with trees is they don’t stay put.  The eastern red cedar, Siberian elm, and plums have all expanded, or exploded in population.  I won’t pretend to know why, whether it’s climate change, process change (less wildfire), or a population threshold has been passed and the seed is dispersed by wildlife that may not have been common in the area before trees were introduced.  And the problem with more trees is more shade, see above.  When we planted nearly 3,000 trees and shrubs we not only introduced new plants but also shaded out sun-loving natives, discouraged ground nesting birds that are deterred by tree-perching predators, and probably encouraged berry eating songbirds that perch and plant more trees, and so on.

As a result of all this meddling, the pasture prairie is degraded.  Portions of it have been tilled, graded, flooded, and overgrazed.  It’s an abused piece of land.  But it never ceases to amaze me with the diversity of species that pop up in spite of our misguided notions.  I’ll never forget disking a firebreak and finding spiderwort and coneflower blooming where there had been none before or the proliferation of violet sorrel in that same firebreak.  I’m sure it is more resilient than we are and know that it will outlast us.  The question is whether or not we can leave it in better condition than we found it.  These judgements are subjective, dependent on our notion of what is a “good” piece of land.  What I do know is I don’t want this prairie to look like Illinois or exist solely for the benefit of cattle.  We will probably spend the rest of our lives continuing to meddle trying to figure out what is the “right” thing.

 

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Who We are

Shoestring Acres Seed is a fledgling native seed farm located in northeast (verging on north central) Nebraska.  Here is where our great grandparents homesteaded in 1881.  Approximately 25 acres of pasture harbor remnant prairie.  The swales consist of tallgrasses: big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass while mixed grass species: side oats grama, Junegrass, little bluestem creep up the side slopes.  We believe the flat areas and gentler slopes were overseeded with smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.  The most common wildflowers are prairie rose and leadplant.  That’s why the farm/business is called Shoestring Acres Seed: when settlers plowed through leadplant roots they popped and sounded like a leather shoestring when it breaks so the plant was nicknamed prairie shoestrings.

View of plum thicket (bright green) encroaching into leadplant

Leadplant seen in the right foreground

In 2006 we planted approximately five acres to native grasses and wildflower plots.  These provide the G1 seed that we sell. (G1 refers to the first generation cultivated from wild seed sources.) We also harvest from the remnant prairies that we own or where we have permission to collect seed.  Most of our foundation seed planted in the plots was harvested within 25 miles of the farm.  Compass plant and narrow-leaf coneflower are the exceptions to this standard.

“We” are Alison (blogger), my sister Kristin, and our husbands Carey and Rob.  We also occasionally con Kristin’s children into helping out.  Our reason for doing this is to preserve and restore what little bit of virgin prairie remains on the family farm and to provide seed for others who want to plant prairie.

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