Moving Beyond the Weeds
Regional efforts to restore the Verde River watershed are currently underway. In order to create healthy and ecologically resilient habitats we need to ‘move beyond the weeds’ and consider restoring the ecosystem instead of just managing invasives. Successful restoration is made possible by an appropriate, reliable and affordable supply of native plant materials. Currently there is very little native seed production or native plant from local genotypes in Northern Arizona. This has been hindered more by economic and institutional inefficiencies than by biological constraints as multiple entities work independently to meet small-scale restoration needs.
The Verde Valley is a unique transition zone between the Arizona/New Mexico Mountain and Sonoran Desert ecoregions, has a long growing season and a unique agricultural history extending to the prehistoric era. The Co-op provides technical support to farmers to expand their capacity to produce native plants and seed to sell directly to customers who have determined the priority species most in demand. We are a link between local nurseries and emerging native plant producers to provide regional seed and connect with buyers of these plants. This approach provides multiple benefits to both the regional economy and local ecosystems. By developing best practices for native plant production we are increasing opportunities for alfalfa and annual crop farmers to transition some of their fields to native plant production. This will increase natural habitat for native pollinators; prepare farms to be more resilient in the face of climate change; and ultimately reduce stress on the riparian system through water and soil conservation.
The Seeds of this Effort
The Friends of Verde River Greenway (FVRG) convened a working group in spring 2016 to identify how to increase production of native seed and plant materials from local genotypes. The group conducted a survey of 40 potential native plant materials buyers and growers to understand both market demand and production capacity in the Verde River Watershed. The survey results highlight uncertainties in the native plant materials market and also point to the support for a native plant materials cooperative and identified key players in the region.
The survey revealed that local genotypes are important to the majority of native plant materials buyers. Over half of the respondents expressed interest in buying from a cooperative, and those who were uncertain about contributing funding identified that the type of agreements to accommodate this would be important. Half of the growers who responded to the survey expressed interest in producing native plants for a cooperative. The high responses by growers on all the potential opportunities indicate that if designed correctly, a native plant materials cooperative could provide multiple benefits. The survey results point to the feasibility and need to work at the watershed level to produce native plant materials in the AZ/NM Mountain and Sonoran Desert ecoregions.
In order for our restoration efforts to be effective, we need to source native plants capable of establishing in marginalized habitats. Research points to the importance of not only using appropriate species, but also appropriate genotypic diversity of species, even retaining the germplasm from native plants at the invaded sites (Leger 2016).
We work with stakeholders to identify workhorse species in our watershed:
- Those that thrive in a variety of conditions (including marginal habitat)
- Reproduce quickly & prolifically – by seeds & vegetative means
- Fill important ecological niches
- Natural process: erosion control
- Ecosystem Service: forage/habitat for target animal species, like pollinators
We use Seeds of Success protocols to collect as many as fifteen wild populations of at least 100 plants for each seed increase field. Based on project needs we identify the appropriate transfer zone to maintain genetic diversity, based on either level III or level IV ecoregions or other climate data.
Build relationships between buyers and growers
Much like the Community Supported Agriculture business model that connects farm crop production with members who purchase a seasonal share of vegetables, it helps share the risks and benefits of farming. Our next steps will be to create a framework between potential members (buyers and growers) to determine priority species for seed collection and field production based on commitments from buyers growers.
We want to develop more agreements with buyers to expand the number of acres in production and involve more farmers to share outcomes and growing strategies. We want to work with stakeholders to engage municipalities and private landowners and design policies that encourage native plant use.
Seek additional funding
The Cooperative will require part-time, consistent coordination to meet the needs of buyers and develop the capacity of regional growers to grow native seed at the field scale. Funding for this effort initially will come from foundations, partnerships with non-profits, and contracts with federal agencies. However the long-term economic and ecological benefits of transitioning farmland in the Verde Watershed largely used to grow pasture to native plant production will be worth more significant financial investments.