Prairie Grasses and Wildflowers Profile
By Ray Hansen, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, email@example.com.
The heightened public awareness of the need for biodiversity coupled with government mandates for using native plants has led to an increased demand for prairie grasses and wildflower seed. Emergence of the prairie grass and wildflower industry was triggered by the 1987 passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act,which requires that all federally aided highway landscaping projects include native grasses or wildflowers. At least one quarter of one percent of all funds expended for a landscaping project must be used to establish native plants.
In 2001, the House of Representatives recommended that the Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA) lead a program to manage and supply native plant materials for various federal land management needs. More than 640 million acres—28% of the total United States land area—is federal land (Vincent, Hanson, Argueta, 2017).
A simple prairie restoration program alone would have most likely sparked industry growth for seed producers, but the requirement of native or ecotype-specific plantings has created a significant supply shortage of source-verified or region-specific seeds.
It might appear that raising and marketing pure seed native to a region would be a short-term opportunity that would soon be overproduced. However, Midwestern states have nearly eliminated many of their native specimens by intensive row cropping and grazing since the 1920s. A limited supply of native seed stock is only one of the deterrents that prevent rapid entry into this industry by producers. The limited seed production characteristic of these same plants is another (Cash &Wichman).
These crops require intensive management skills. Harvesting, cleaning, and processing are labor intensive, and seed must be segregated into ecotype-specific inventories. Many of the varieties can take up to seven years to build production to a point that a producer may have commercially marketable supplies.
It is important to identify what qualifies as a native plant for a specific location because many invasive species are exotics that became naturalized. To validate the origin and source of prairie grasses and wildflowers, several states have established a source-verification yellow tag program. Yellow tag programs are administered through state crop improvement associations. Crop improvement seed directories indicate that relatively few producers across the country have capitalized on this market opportunity. Seed producers who choose not to use the source-verification programs typically market non-source-verified mixed seed to prairie restoration projects and home landscapers.
The selection of grasses and wildflowers commercially available is limited by the quality and quantity of source-specified native seed stock. Prices received for these seeds vary greatly, depending on the availability and purity of the seed. Common prairie grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass typically sell for $10 to $20 per pound, and rarer grasses may sell for several hundred dollars per pound when sold in bulk. Common wildflowers may sell for as low as $45 per pound for varieties such as black-eyed susans and cone flowers, while rarer native ecotypes, which are normally sold by the ounce, can sell for the equivalent of nearly $2,000 dollars per pound. Most landscape and restoration projects opt to purchase mixed seed units that will sell for $50 to $200 per pound. One pound of these mixes will normally seed about 2,000 square feet.
Seed yield is also variable. In one trial, wildflower seed yields varied from 31 lbs. per acre for Chrysanthemum leucanthemum to 1,426 lbs./A for Monarda citriodora. One low-yielding species, Verbena tenuisecta, produced only 42 lbs./A. However, at a retail price of $85/lb., that is a gross return of $3,570 an acre. (Johnson & Whitwell)
Projected gross revenue is only one consideration to evaluate whether this enterprise is feasible. All inputs or variable costs need to be subtracted from the anticipated gross to determine whether there is a positive return over variable costs. If this figure is negative, this is not a viable enterprise. Many tools available for evaluating new enterprises offer worksheets to walk potential producers through the evaluation of a new enterprise.
Wildflower and prairie grass seed have many potential uses: mine reclamation, roadside beautification, prairie restoration, erosion control, wildlife rehabilitation, and landscaping. Given the continued use of ecotype seed by federal and state road projects and the continued interest in prairie restoration by conservation groups and an under-supplied market, the future of the industry looks favorable for the short term. The increased demand for gluten-free products may develop another trend for grasses grown as an alternative to wheat. (Cash & Wichman, Brannon).
Because of the intensive management and labor involved with ecotype seed production, the number of large commercial suppliers remains relatively small and competition is spread evenly across the Midwest. Some of the major Midwestern commercial suppliers include Allendan Seed in Iowa, Bamert Seed Company in Texas, Ion Exchange in Iowa, Native American Seed in Texas, Ohio Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota, Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin and Shooting Star Native Seeds in Minnesota.
Interest in using prairie grass as a biomass energy source gained considerable attention with the passage of the Renewable Fuels Standard in 2006, which showcased switchgrass as a potential contributor to a growing ethanol industry. For more information about biomass for energy, please see Biomass.