Wednesday, 2 Jul 2003

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa

I hear the words hoein’ and mowin’ a lot these days. That’s in reference to student work assignments here at the Native Roadside Vegetation Center. Greg Houseal and Dave Williams run the center’s Iowa Ecotype Project, through which 90 acres are rapidly being converted to individual species production plots for native wildflowers (forbs) and grasses. Plot rows need hoeing, borders need mowing. What are you doing today? Hoein’ and mowin’.

A native plant production plot of Echinchea pallida (pale purple coneflower).

Over the last 20 years, prairie restoration has really taken off. Use of native species for all kinds of landscaping has increased. The Iowa Department of Transportation does a few thousand acres each year. The counties plant another thousand acres along county roads. Pheasants Forever and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are responsible for several thousand acres on private land. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and County Conservation Boards are busy planting new habitat in their areas. There’s a lot going on and it’s the best thing possible for our soil and water.

This much planting raises some issues. Until recent years, native seed was not available in any quantity in Iowa. Ecologists had concerns about bringing seed in from too far away, because the seeding mixes contained some species that were not a part of Iowa’s native prairie. Even if the species are appropriate, seed from too far away may have adapted to different conditions and not do as well in Iowa. Will a Texas Black-eyed Susan thrive in Iowa?

All the native grasses previously available from commercial growers were cultivated varieties developed for aggressive forage production and uniform germination. They are viewed by many as too big and robust to be well-behaved members of a diverse plant community. Some of those varieties lack a broad genetic base.

In some circles, a debate rages over the validity of these concerns and just how local our seed sources need to be. Whether or not DNA studies are able to justify these concerns, one could still ask: If you are starting a native seed industry in Iowa, why not base it on seed that comes from Iowa’s original prairie? Enter the Iowa Ecotype Project.

NRV Center Director Daryl Smith conceived the Iowa Ecotype Project with the goal of improving availability of native seed from Iowa. Since it began in 1990, this project has relied on $25,000 per year from Iowa DOT’s Living Roadway Trust Fund. Each year handfuls of seed of three species are collected from tiny prairie remnants across the state. That seed is increased for a few years and then released as foundation seed to private growers. The growers mass produce and market the seed.

There are now 40 species of native forbs and grasses included in the project. Native Iowa prairie seed certified by Iowa Crop Improvement Association as “Source-Identified” is now available in large quantities and at competitive prices. It’s a huge investment for private growers in land, cleaning and storage facilities, and equipment. You can’t expect such growers to mass produce your local seed unless there is sufficient demand. Despite ecological concerns about moving seed around too much, ultimately the size of the region for which any seed is produced will largely be determined by market forces.

For the Iowa Ecotype Project, Iowa is divided into three zones: northern, central, and southern. It’s apparent already that it would be impractical to ask the average grower to produce seed designated for use in a smaller market area.

Growers need some sort of guarantee; fortunately, we have received Transportation Enhancement funds the last six years to make one large seed purchase on behalf of 55 counties. The Iowa DOT allows us to state up front that we will pay a certain percentage more for certified Iowa seed. This single annual purchase has provided a very important incentive to growers to step up production of local seed. Using these funds to drive production has gotten availability to the level where DOT will keep the ball rolling — we hope — by asking for Iowa seed for more and more of their projects.

This project is a true partnership involving the Iowa Department of Transportation, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa Native Seed Producers, USDA Plant Materials Center, and Iowa Crop Improvement Association at Iowa State University.