The road to recovery in many of southwest Oregon’s degraded grasslands, oak savannas and wetlands is a bumpy one. One of the biggest roadblocks to understory restoration is the limited availability of site-appropriate native plants, say experts.
The bottleneck comes down to the scarcity of seeds.
Understory refers to the forest floor, grasslands, meadows and riparian areas where the birds, bees and butterflies flit about and wildlife forage. The small native plants underfoot frequently get overlooked in habitat restoration and reforestation projects.
But these natives are essential components to restoring understory and “crucial to developing resilient habitats,” says Kathryn Prive, who is on a mission to cultivate seeds for plants that will thrive in southwest Oregon’s frosty, wet winters and long, hot and dry summers.
Healthy understory requires “the right seed at the right time in the right place,” she says.
While serving as coordinator of the Rogue Native Plant Partnership (RNPP) and running a for-profit consulting firm that works with private, state and federal landowners on habitat-restoration projects, Prive noticed that the supply of native understory plant seeds could not keep up with the demand.
“Although there is a lot of great restoration work going on in Southern Oregon, many projects are native seed-limited,” she says. “This results in less-resilient restored habitats with inadequate nectar resources for pollinators and forage for wildlife.”
To meet the unmet need, Prive launched The Understory Initiative (TUI) to improve the diversity and availability of native materials in southwest Oregon and Northern California.
Many native seed suppliers are located in the Willamette Valley or Puget Sound regions — both with very different climates and landscapes.
As executive director of the new nonprofit, Prive plans to develop a network of local farms that can supply the native seed and plants for understory-focused projects; the first step is finding farmers willing to do the groundwork — literally.
Gary Kliewer’s farm, Long Shadow Fields, is the first to join the effort to create cooperatively managed seed farms. About two miles outside the city of Talent, Kliewer’s 4.5-acre farm will be TUI’s “laboratory.”
“Gary’s our guinea pig,” says Prive.
Prive and Kliewer have the credentials to support and educate farmers on best practices as well as encourage innovation for new methods of native seed farming.
Prive is a graduate of both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. She has a master’s degree in population genetics and ecological restoration, as well as a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
A graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental science, Kliewer says the project is “a perfect intersection” of his education and enthusiasm for environmental restoration.
“It’s in my DNA,” he says.
When Kliewer purchased his property four years ago, he began building out the infrastructure to transform what had primarily been horse pasture into a farm where he could cultivate vegetable and flower seeds. Several summers of drought conditions and a short supply of irrigation water have made that goal “quite a challenge,” he says.
He calls the alternate plan of growing native plants for seed “exciting.”
“Natives are adapted to the wet winters and long, dry summers,” he says. “Water is less of an issue.”
Native species are also less catnip-like to deer.
“They are less susceptible than veggies to being chomped on,” he says.
Kliewer envisions utilizing “under-utilized corners and edges” of his property as he transforms it to site-specific conditions for natives.
A hurdle that Kliewer is willing to jump is the transition from annuals — which are what most vegetable crops and marketable flowers are — to perennials, which is what most native species are.
“Learning the new species will be like learning another language,” says Kliewer. “You have to learn the rules of (native) grammar.”
Prive says the wait for plants to produce not just seed, but marketable seed, may deter many farmers.
Some herbs and grasses, for instance, may take up to four years to set seed. Native wildflowers often require multiple growing seasons until seed is produced, as do bulbs, like camas.
“Many farmers cannot afford to invest the time needed to grow important native wildflowers that take years to produce seed while also innovating new ways to sow, harvest, and clean the seed,” says Prive.
Additional expenses include buying specialized equipment for the operation.
“It’s quite an investment upfront, and you have to wait and hope that there’s a market,” she says. “It’s risky and many farmers will be out of their comfort zone.”
Prive plans to seek grants that will underwrite the farmers’ endeavors.
“If we can generate financial support in the interim, it won’t be such a huge risk,” she says. “Linking them up with funds can even out the humps.”
She would also like to set up means to offer technical assistance and create equipment sharing co-ops.
When farming native seed, protocols must be followed to maximize genetic diversity. “That’s a foreign concept for traditional seed farmers,” says Prive.
Traditional farming requires uniformity.
“With my red-ruffled peppers, for instance, if I get a yellow pepper, out it comes,” says Kliewer. “With natives, you want diversity. You don’t want to rip out the weird ones. We want weirdos.”
Native plant restoration is one remedy to the wildfire-plagued summers, says Prive.
Native grasses, for example, stay green longer even in drought years and are less of a fire hazard.
While lightning-caused wildfires are inevitable every summer, “we would have way different fires with a healthy ecosystem,” says Prive.
Fires in a healthy understory community, she adds, have a tendency to burn “at low intensity.
“They burn out or move out quickly.”
Prive is hopeful that Kliewer’s experiments and experience with get other farmers over the “educational hump.”
“There are a lot of potential growers and a growing interest.”
For more information about The Understory Initiative, contact Prive at understoryinitiative.org or check out the organization’s Facebook page.
Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at firstname.lastname@example.org.