History of Commercial Seed Production of Native Grasses in the Eastern United States
Before 1990, the production and use of native plant species in restoration, along with the sale of native grass seed, was not that common. Production of these species in the eastern United States was limited, and the thinking during this time period was that these grasses were not that commonly found in the Eastern states and were primarily Midwestern species. In 1990, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which was just getting a foothold in Pennsylvania, initiated a unique collaboration of private industry and governmental entities, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, along with non-governmental organizations such as the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. CREP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers and ranchers restore agricultural lands to natural habitats in order to enhance ecological services including erosion control, ground and surface water quality, and wildlife habitat. As CREP gained recognition and more agencies saw the benefits from establishing these types of projects, the mindset that had prevailed in the past, that native grass prairies were only for the Midwestern states, faded, allowing for the growth of the native grass seed industry in the eastern United States.
Through this collaboration, many of the early “tips and techniques” for planting and growing native grasses were disseminated to the farmer and private landowner, and to state government agencies, who were interested in learning new restoration techniques. During this time, it was a “win-win” situation for all parties involved that went a long way in establishing and promoting the use of native grasses in Pennsylvania and throughout the eastern region of the United States. One of the early pioneers in the promotion and use of native grasses for projects like these was Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Land Management Officer, Dick Belding. Belding was instrumental in some of the first early plantings of warm season grasses for game habitat improvement and for educating others on the prevalence of native grasses in the eastern United States before it was settled.
These early collaborations led to further acceptance and usage of native grasses and new techniques in restoration projects. Harvesting equipment evolved from the old style crop combine to specially built vacuum harvesters and specialized combine stripper heads. Seed cleaning is now not only done on the old wooden style clipper cleaners, but also on modern, retrofitted, computer-controlled cleaners with custom-built screens. Small lots of native seeds are cleaned on specialized, laboratory-sized equipment. Originally, seed testing was not required. Today, however, natives are tested like all other commercial lawn or crop seed. For example, some seed growers test all of their seed through AOSA (Association of Official Seed Analysts) commercial seed labs that are certified in native seed testing, thereby providing the end user or project regulator with a current, valid seed testing result. This should be standard practice throughout the industry, and insisted upon by practitioners.
Storage and planting techniques have also been further developed. The seeds of some species need low temperatures and low humidity, such a big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans). On the other hand, recalcitrant seeds that do not survive drying to any large degree and are not amenable to long-term storage, such as arrow arum (Peltandra virginica) and wildrice (Zizania aquatica), cannot be dried. Planting techniques changed with the introduction of the Truax no-till drill, with its innovative, separate fluffy and smooth seed boxes, and its ability to be used on rough ground.
Another accomplishment has been the development of ecotype and ecoregion seed stocks. The federal government has always been ahead of the curve with the use of native plant species in the restoration field. They established the USDA NRCS Plant Materials Centers as far back as the 1950s and laid the groundwork for commercial native seed growers to take the lead and advance the available native germplasm to commercially viable levels. [End Page 130]
Early native grass plantings tended to be monocultures. However, as different native grass species stocks became commercially available, grassland...