The Seed People: Reflections on the 2023 National Native Seed Conference

In the midst of Cherry Blossom Madness in Washington, DC, a contingent of Oregonians landed to be among “our people”: Seed (but never seedy!) People.

The theme of the 2023 National Native Seed Conference was “Cultivating the Restoration Supply Chain”. In the past few years, we’ve all become all too familiar with the term “supply chain” in the context of supply shortages. In the restoration world, the supply chain doesn’t just involve farmers, distributors, native seed partnerships and administrators, though all of these people are important. The most important “people” involved in habitat restoration are plants – the source of all those vital genetic information packages that we know as seeds.

Best practices in habitat restoration say to use locally genetically adapted seed for revegetation of degraded landscapes; however, in many parts of the US and the world, locally adapted seed is simply not available, or it is so scarce as to be unaffordable. The National Native Seed Conference (NNSC) convened to clearly define the barriers to building a more abundant native seed supply chain, and to explore some possible solutions.

Rogue Native Plant Partnership was able to participate in this conference thanks to the generosity of the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), who sponsored Tuula Rebhahn and Vanessa Robertson-Rojas to attend. Funding from RNPP partners Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians sent a third delegate, Kathryn Prive. Tuula and Kathryn coordinate the RNPP through its fiscal sponsor, The Understory Initiative, and Vanessa is an Ecologist with The Understory Initiative who manages several native seed farming contracts in the Rogue Basin.

Safe from crowds of selfie-taking tourists in a conference hotel just downriver from our nation’s capital, the three of us, along with 500 other conference attendees, were treated to a blossoming show of a different sort. A gorgeous diversity of flower photos accompanied many charts and graphs compiled by researchers, farmers and restoration practitioners, magnified by powerpoint projections. For three days we took in dozens of rapid-fire presentations to learn about all aspects of the seed supply chain. With partners at IAE and US Fish & Wildlife Service, we also facilitated a symposium on Oregon’s native seed partnerships, and Vanessa presented research by The Understory Initiative into the efficacy of planting natives beneath solar panels (a recording of the symposium presentation will be available soon and shared via the RNPP Newsletter).

Needless to say, we learned a lot, and the value of putting faces to names, and bodies to floating heads on the Zoom calls of the past three years, is immeasurable. To distill all of the information, insights and “ah-ha!”s into a neat written package is probably a fools’ errand, but we would like to try anyway.

Here are our takeaways from NNSC2023.

1. We Are Not Alone

Native Seed Conference Attendees tour the US Botanical Garden in Washington, DC. Representatives from Oregon, Iowa, Utah, California, Connecticut and Hawaii!

There’s probably not a single person who hasn’t felt a sense of laboring in isolation over the past three years, whether physically or conceptually. But in the process of preparing for the conference and in the days we spent networking, we recognized that Seed People are everywhere – in Oregon, across the US, and even globally. We counted eight partnership-type groups in Oregon that coordinate native seed production, distribution and application in our state alone. Seed partnerships are “sprouting up” in the northeastern US, Arizona, Nevada, California, Iowa, Wyoming and Hawaii. We even talked to a seed farmer from Germany. In all of these groups, we heard about similar challenges: 1. Convincing farmers that growing native seed is financially viable; 2. Finding reliable sources of information about how to grow native plants that are not commercially produced; and 3. Sourcing the foundation seed from the wild in areas where there are precious few intact native plant communities left.

One of the most fascinating parts of the conference was hearing from large native seed growers who are producing acres of seed on an industrial scale, in places like California’s Central Valley and in the fertile Midwest. According to one presenter, who cited public USDA farm data, there are more than 650 entities growing native seeds in the US. The USDA also lists over 35,000 acres dedicated to the production of native grass seed, and 10,000 acres producing forbs. The native seed farmers on this panel were confident that they could grow out just about any species of seed, if given enough time to understand how to grow it on a large scale. Using tractors, herbicide, armies of seasonal labor, and huge refrigerated storage facilities, they promised “all the seed you can use and more”.

Let’s come back to that after we return to the world of plants for a moment.

2. Smaller is Better

In the opening plenary, Dr. Tom Kaye from the Institute for Applied Ecology shared research showing that biodiversity is essential not just for plant communities, and the web of life that depends on plants, but also for human health and well being. He cited studies showing that the microbiome that coexists with and supports a diverse set of floral life contributes to a more diverse microbiome for humans. This may have positive impacts for everything from immunity and digestion to general mood.

Diversity is crucial because it allows plants – and every other life form – to adapt to changing conditions. On the final morning of the conference, Elizabeth Leger from the University of Nevada presented research from her lab showing that smaller bunchgrasses are better adapted to survive hot, dry conditions, and may even compete better with invasive cheatgrass. While bigger is usually assumed to be better, and certainly has its advantages for plants in many contexts, it was the plants genetically predisposed to smallness that avoided shriveling in the desert sun and held space against a smothering competitor. If the genetics for “smallness” did not exist in these fescues, they might not exist today in the hottest, and most heavily invaded regions of their habitat.

Small has its advantages for trees as well. Another study presented by Erin Baumgart of the US Forest Service showed that Oregon white oak trees subjected to “plant torture” (grown in small pots, pruned to the base after the first year of growth) actually performed just as well or better under drought conditions than trees allowed to reach their maximum size in the same time period.

We would argue that producing plants and seeds on a small scale, in the same bioregions where they adapted and where they will be replanted, makes good ecological sense as well. Though we see a time and a place for large-scale production of seeds at large farms in fertile agricultural region, there are reasons that local food advocates have been calling for de-centralization and de-industrialization of agriculture for fifty years or more. We saw how fragile the supply chain is during the pandemic and extreme weather events of late. And we also believe in the tremendous potential of the native seed economy to transform struggling rural communities, many of which need to transition to non water-intensive crops in the very near future. Small is better.  

3. Climate change is now, let’s adapt

Plants are one of the best defenses against the hazards posed by climate change – they stabilize soils and streambanks, shade the earth, and shelter and provide food for vulnerable life-forms from butterflies to people. Study after study has shown that the impacts of climate change are happening today: Increased frequency and intensity of fires, peak summer temperatures that are hotter and last longer than before, and more erratic weather patterns overall.

We also know that every plant has its “zone” of ideal conditions. They are adapted to thrive in the particular climate, soil type and elevation where they evolved. What we don’t know is how flexible they can be when climate conditions veer into the extremes, especially at the rapid pace at which the climate is changing (an estimated 10x faster than the pace of evolution). Waiting to “see what happens” could mean allowing millions of plant communities to expire before they can adapt.

Many of the NNSC presentations echoed a clear call to action: Assisted migration. Plants need outside help to move into the new climate reality, and who better – with our hands, feet, trucks and seed-drills – than humans to take on the task?

To take on this unprecedented task, there is no agreed-upon set of protocols. But even though the problem is not well studied and models are unreliable, there are some tools that can point us in the right direction.

Tom Kaye highlighted the “Climate-Adapted Seed Selection Tool” which can be useful for identifying species and ecotypes (local, genetically distinct populations of species) to use in restoration and revegetation projects. This tool allows the user to input a broad range of climate variables to obtain an output of where to source seeds that might be “climate adapted”. If unsure which variables to select, Dr. Kaye recommends increasing the winter minimum temperature and lengthening the summer drought period, two factors that have been shown to have an impact on plant germination and long-term success.

In addition, Dr. Kaye advocated for “adapting sourcing”, or choosing seeds from species and ecotypes that fall within a Venn diagram spanning three categories. First, locally adapted seeds. Next, locally adapted seeds that come from populations that have experienced “bad” years (eg. drought) or that eke out a living on harsher sites within the local area. Finally, seeds should be sourced from areas outside the locality that have been identified as climate analog zones. These are areas that models predict will have similar weather to your area in the future. For example some have estimated that the Rogue Basin area may look more like Chico, California in 30 years.

Will adaptive sourcing be enough to preserve plant communities into the future? We heard from another presenter, Jack Zinnen from the University of Illinois, that species diversity is another crucial part of the puzzle. Getting a wider diversity of species into the restoration supply chain is challenging – though plants that are easy to grow and harvest like grasses, trees and showy, generalist forbs are widely available (not as available as lettuce seeds or red maple seedlings, but available in the context of native plants), a large number of genera are not being grown out in farms. These include sedges, anything that is “weedy” (prone to take over agricultural fields) and ugly, late successional plants (which are not often used in restoration projects) and plants with complicated life cycles (which take a long time to produce a marketable product). This is not the fault of farmers (who must pay their bills and feed their families off of these unpredictable and unwieldy plants); those who value ecological diversity are also tasked with making it economically viable.

It’s not a small task; none of this work will be easy. But we returned from the conference emboldened and inspired all the same. We are dealing with tenacious, surprising plants, and creative, hardworking people. We may be small, but we are not alone, and we will adapt.

Another big thanks to IAE for organizing the National Native Seed Conference; we hope to see you there next time.