Last year, one Utah rancher sold off his cattle and spent the summer watching the grass grow. At summer’s end, he harvested the grass for seed and made more money selling the seed than he could have made selling his cattle. Throughout the West, farmers and ranchers who are struggling to stay afloat as they raise grains and beef are eyeing the growing market in native seeds.
Since 1977, when federal law required mines to reclaim their lands with native plants, the demand for native seeds has grown steadily. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management use huge quantities of seed to restore land damaged by fire, logging, and grazing. Native varieties are particularly desirable because of the fire hazard created by noxious weeds.
Transportation departments have jumped on the native seed bandwagon, using them for low-maintenance landscaping along highways. Rising water prices and water restrictions have also put the squeeze on home and business owners who have increased their use of drought-tolerant native species in their landscaping.
For those on the buying end of the native plant boom, it can be an expensive proposition. Native grass seed can cost as much as 200 times what cultivated grasses cost, and some native flower seeds fetch hundreds of dollars a pound. For those on the selling end, it looks like a gold mine at first blush. However, before turning the cows loose and planting the wheat field with native flowers, farmers need a reality check. Growing native plants for market is not as easy as it might appear. It requires different skills and equipment than those used to grow grains and legumes. And the seed can be hard to collect and then difficult to separate from the chaff. Still more troublesome, some plants produce viable seed only every other year.
Rather than cut the safety nets to their traditional livelihoods, some landowners are edging their way into the native seed market. They are dedicating a few bare acres at a time to sagebrush, creosote, and lupine. If these plants prove themselves as “cash crops,” the western landscape could look quite different in the future.