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Salamatof Seeds Project
One question before Alaskan Tribes is how to develop grass roots industries that respect the land, are compatible with cultural traditions and may provide incomes for tribal members. The Salamatof Tribe, on the Kenai Peninsula has begun a wild seed cultivation and harvest project that may be a model other tribes will consider.
First, what are wild seeds? Are they misbehaving? Can they be rehabilitated? Well, with proper care and guidance, wild seeds can learn a new way of life, as valuable partners in habitat restoration.
This is the just one part of the picture of land restoration activities that Alaskan tribes may wish to consider. Traditionally, native peoples have been stewards of the land, practicing living lightly so as not to disturb the fragile web of life. As Alaskas population grows, there will an increase in the need for land restoration and habitat enhancement activities. Tribes that are in environments that are not suitable for cultivation, may wish to track opportunities such as providing willow cuttings for stream bank stabilization projects, or developing summer youth conservation teams to work with local resource managers.
Many construction projects could benefit from an increased availability of wild plants, including grasses, wildflowers and sedges. Examples include using willow slips for stream bank re- vegetation, native fescues to border new airstrips, and bluejoint grass to reclaim land altered for mining or other mineral extraction.
Using plants which are indigenous to an area makes good ecological and economic sense. Wild plants are adapted to the climate, so they will thrive, where nonresident species may die off after several seasons. For example, this means the plant intended to prevent stream bank erosion will stay in place, protecting vital salmon spawning habitats, instead of leaving it vulnerable to sediment. Plants native to an area are more apt to thrive, reducing the need for expensive replanting.
More important, resident plants are part of the regional ecosystem. The land and climate establish clear limits for their growth, stopping them from becoming invasive. Lands in many other states are losing some of their diversity because of the unchecked growth and spread of introduced plant species. For example, the purple loosestrife has been called the purple plague, as it moves across the lower 48 states. It is a beautiful, hardy, fast-growing plant used for landscaping. It is still sold by commercial nurseries, although it is causing severe loss of wetlands habitat. Purple loosestrife moves into a marsh, or wetland, and soon edges out the indigenous plants. Then, valuable nesting habitats are unavailable to local waterfowl, and the mat of vegetation causes the wetland to shrink in size, further diminishing the habitat.
Usually, regulations require any business that disturbs the land to reseed with native plant material. Logging companies, mines, oil and pipeline companies all fall under this jurisdiction. The State of Alaskas Department of Transportation uses tons of wild seed each year. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Bureau of Land Management and other state and federal agencies, buy seed and/or require their contractors to do so as well.
Sources of native plant seed are limited, and the prices show this. Some highest per pound prices are for wild flower seeds, ranging from twenty-five dollars per pound for lupine, Lupinus nootkatensis, to five hundred dollars per pound for harebell, Campanula rotundifolia. It is important to remember that this is for certified, clean seed, which requires special equipment to gather and package.
Certified seed comes from plants grown from what is known as foundation seed. It is necessary to plant foundation seed to get a crop of certified seed. One source for foundation seed is the Alaska Seed Growers Association in Palmer, Alaska. Certified seed commands a higher price than non-certified.
Wild collections of seed cannot be certified at this time. However, this problem is being addressed. One grower expects that within two or three years there will be a method to certify wild collected seed. The Seed Growers Association and several growers and collectors are working on regulations and methods.
The Salamatof Tribe received technical assistance from the Native American Fish & Wildlife Society to begin the Salmatof Seeds Project. Some of the technical support was provided by Richard L. Baldwin, owner of Seeds of Alaska. Mr. Baldwin has many years of experience with native plant cultivation and harvest in Kenai, Alaska. He compares wild seed cultivation, also known as agribusiness, to commercial fishing, saying that fishing and farming are much alike. Both occupations are subject to wild gyrations of production and price that are completely beyond our control. Both occupations are undertaken by people who love the work and are willing to tough out the bad years, to hang in there until conditions improve. Make no mistake. You will have bad years in agriculture. Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Segura have worked closely together to establish a strong project that is showing good potential to assist the Salamatof Tribe toward its goal of sustainable economic development.
Mr. Baldwin recommended the cautious approach to beginning a seed growing enterprise. He said that a strong commitment is vital to the projects long term success, as seed growing requires a large investment in equipment and land preparation. Tribes considering wild seed cultivation will need to invest in some equipment at startup, but by starting small, the expensive harvesting equipment and other specialized items may wait for three or four years. Also, interested cultivators should look for opportunities to lease equipment, reducing their financial risk. In discussing the time of the project, Mr. Baldwin said There is no hurry. The land will be there forever and your tribe will be there as long as it guards the land. Land is the only real wealth and carefully planned agricultural development can only improve the land.
Mr. Baldwin said that one advantage of wild seed cultivation is the ability to store seed until market conditions are favorable. The product keeps, usually, for several years, requiring only simple refrigerated storage. In Alaska, that is easy. For the longest storage life, seeds should be stored below 40 degrees F.
He recommended grass seed as the initial crop, as it is the easiest to grow, and the market is well established. The other types of plants, forbs and wetland plants require a greater degree of skill and knowledge for successful production.
A wide range of plant types could overwhelm employees and managers. First, establish the grasses, then start thinking about other plants. This gives managers and employees a chance to grow with the plants.
Jim Segura, President of the Salamatof Native Association, Inc. (SNA) said that they planted about 12 acres, two years ago, have cleared another 25 and planted them. Now, the SNA, inc. has built new partnerships and is leasing additional land for planting. In total, they will have about 50 acres of land under cultivation. So far, they have followed Mr. Baldwins advice and planted grass seed. Their land is planted with Beringhare grass, which is in demand for planting along new airstrips. Currently, the certified seed wholesales for about $12 per lb. Beringhare grass needs two years before it is ready to harvest. Some of SNAs land that was planted last year will bloom for the first time next summer. Then, the grass seed will be harvested in the fall. Mr. Segura is planning for another harvest in the fall of the year 2000. As Mr. Baldwin said, this is a patient business.
What is outstanding about this project is the involvement of Salamatofs young people. Though the jobs are not glamorous, they are outside activities that will teach stewardship values. As the business grows, there will be opportunities to participate in other aspects, such as marketing and new aspects of cultivation. Nest spring, the Salamatof summer youth students will learn how to cultivate and weed the crop. They will learn how to use the small cultivators, to remove wild grasses and other weeds. It should take them about a week. After that, there will be only spot maintenance until harvest time.
To date, the SEEDS project appears like it will make its expenses back in just the first few years, and it has provided employment opportunities for the summer youth crew of about ten students. It is reclaiming land used for other purposes, while providing what may be a valuable source of sustainable economic development for the Salamatof tribe.
For more information, we recommend this book on wild plant cultivation,
Growing Alaska Natives
By Richard L. Baldwin
Kenai, Alaska 99611 ($18.50)
Alaska Seed Growers Association in Palmer, Alaska
State of Alaskas Plants Materials Center in Palmer
Chair of Horticulture at the U.A.A., Fairbanks
Last updated 04/28/03