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Seed farm helps restore prairies

Crew members with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa spent several weeks in the area helping harvest seeds and pull weeds at the local Wisconsin DNR seed farm. Pictured, Grace Hoeft of Two Harbors, Minn. (left) and Ahmed Ahmed of Minneapolis harvest seeds.1 / 2
Some native prairie grass seed, like this cream wild indigo, can run as much as $2,000 a pound on the open market.2 / 2

They look like weeds to most people. But to Ryan Brathal, plants growing along the ditches of rural roads can often be a gold mine.

Brathal has an eagle eye when it comes to native prairie plants and grasses, and he's always on the lookout for seeds to harvest. It is, after all, his job.

Brathal is the farm manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources seed farm along County Road H near Star Prairie.

The 56-acre production facility was kick-started in 2002 when the Kinnickinnic Chapter of Pheasants Forever purchased land from local farmer Richard Hesselink.

The Pheasants Forever chapter then donated the land to the DNR as part of the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area that began in 1999. The idea for native prairie seed farming actually began in 1996, when Harvey Halvorsen, local DNR wildlife biologist, teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's St. Croix Wetland Management District office in rural New Richmond.

The two organizations previously spent tens of thousands of dollars a year buying seed in their ongoing efforts to restore native prairies and oak savannas in St. Croix and Polk counties.

In the early 1800s, before pioneer families settled this area and cleared the land for farming, there was more than 300 square miles of prairie and oak savanna in the two counties. Only small remnants of those prairies, totalling just one square mile, remain today.

"The seed farm was a common sense approach to restoring our public lands back to the heritage landscapes that once dominated this area in the 1800s," Halvorsen said.

Not coincidentally, when the oak savanna and native prairie began to disappear, the grassland bird populations of the region steadily declined. The numbers of western meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and bobolinks decreased significantly from 1966 to 2000, according to records.

That's why the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area was established in the two counties to protect and restore 20,000 acres of grassland and wetland habitat. As part of that effort, USFWS Waterfowl Production Areas, DNR wildlife areas and other public lands in the two counties are being restored to prairie and oak savannas.

The key to the restoration effort is establishing a reliable source of native prairie seeds. Years ago, conservationists decided to plant large plots of one seed type, such as switchgrass.

"While these stands were thick and helped pheasants survive the winter, they lacked nesting and brood rearing value we now find in the diverse stands of restored prairies," Halvorsen explained.

"We thought switchgrass was the savior of the world," Brathal said.

But a lot of the earlier switchgrass plantings were with seed purchased from southern states. These varieties didn't fare well in these northern climates and the planting turned out to be of little help with bird and waterfowl production.

"A lot of things planted here just didn't work," Brathal explained.

Eventually conservation groups realized that there had to be a better way.

"We needed to have plants that were genetically adapted to this area," Halvorsen said.

"This stuff evolved here," said Tom Kerr, USFWS supervisor in New Richmond. "Why should we bring other prairie plants in here if they aren't adapted to our growing season?"

Thanks to vegetation surveys of the region from the 1830s to 1850s that are still available, officials decided that an effort to return the landscape to its original condition would bring results. In recent years, hundreds of acres of land throughout the two-county region have gone through a transformation. The trees on many plots have been harvested and prairie flowers and grasses have taken their place. The native oak trees remain on the land to return the property to its pre-settlement condition.

As the restorations began, state and federal conservation agencies began buying prairie seed on the open market but were spending upwards of $30,000 a year for that purpose and could not find enough seed that fared well locally.

That's when the idea for creating a local seed source began to germinate. Seed was collected from the remaining prairie remnants in the region and land for a seed farm was sought.

Over the past 10 years, the local seed production facility has saved the agencies thousands of dollars and has improved the effectiveness of the prairie restoration efforts.

"We've come a long ways," Halvorsen said. "The plantings we install today will be here for our grandchildren and future generations. All these restored plantings need is careful application of fire and perhaps some well-managed grazing."

Today, at the seed farm, five native grass varieties and 20 different forbs (native flowering plants) are grown and the seeds harvested for restoration projects in the area. Some of the seed, if the agencies had to buy it on the open market, could run between $700-$2,000 a pound. It's not uncommon for other prairie seed to run $20 a pound or more.

It took four or five years before the seed farm had enough established prairie to make a dent in the needs of both the DNR and USFWS (which split the harvested seed equally).

The DNR's partnership with the USFWS and conservation groups like the Star Prairie Fish and Game organization has helped to move the effort along, Kerr said. Star Prairie Fish and Game financed much of the remodeling of the current Star Prairie Seed Nursery.

The operation of the seed farm is also aided by several state and federal groups, including the Youth Conservation Corps, Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa, Conservation Education program, Wisconsin Department of Corrections and student volunteers from the University of Wisconsin.

Through the Conservation Reserve Program and land preservation efforts, Kerr noted, the agencies also work with farmers and landowners to restore prairies and improve wildlife production in the area.

Once a prairie restoration begins, it can take up to five years before a plot gets near the desired level of plant diversity. During those early years, a lot of weeding, prescribed burns and planning go into each project.

"Nobody has any idea what goes into getting a prairie to look that way," Brathal said. "They think when you stop farming it automatically grows that way."

The birds, however, do appreciate the end product.

"The birds love this stuff," Halvorsen said, as he pointed to several bluebirds flitting across the seed farm plots.