The ’23 National Native Seed Conference – Cultivating the Restoration Supply Chain and Launching the Northeast Seed Network

By Eve Allen and James Aronson (Ecological Health Network), Sefra Alexandra (The Ecotype Project), Geordie Elkins (Highstead Foundation), and Uli Lorimer (Native Plant Trust). At the ’23 National Native Seed Conference, the newly formed Northeast Seed Network announced their efforts to build a partnership to improve the accessibility of genetically diverse source-identified seed and plant material for the ecoregions of the Northeastern US.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) seed heads. This Northeastern native milkweed species is an important source of nectar for pollinators (Photo: Uli Lorimer).

In late March of this year, people from all over the US and elsewhere gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C., for the 5th National Native Seed Conference ‘Cultivating the Restoration Supply Chain.’ This event connects research, industry, land management, and restoration professionals to share the latest findings, best practices, and success stories related to the collection, development, production, and use of native seed. The conference is the world’s largest event focused on native seed.  

To learn more about this year’s event, we had a follow-up conversation with Tom Kaye, Executive Director, and Senior Ecologist of the Institute for Applied Ecology. This organization is the force behind the conference. Tom shared that the meeting held this year was by far the largest to date, with over 500 participants, a twenty-five percent rise in attendance from the last gathering in 2017. This signals a growing awareness and interest in addressing seed limitations for ecological restoration and other restorative actions. The momentum to ensure that we have ‘the right seed, in the right place, at the right time’ is also gaining traction at Capitol Hill. Tom explained, “there was a greater focus this year to encourage policymakers to direct Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollars at critical pieces of the restoration supply chain infrastructure.”

Tom Kaye, Executive Director, and Senior Ecologist of the Institute for Applied Ecology, the driving force behind the 5th National Native Seed Conference (Photo: Institute for Applied Ecology).

Furthermore, at this year’s native seed conference, Indigenous seed and plant producers and restorationists led sessions and workshops that brought Indigenous Knowledge (a.k.a., Traditional Ecological Knowledge) to the fore of conversations about ‘cultivating’ the restoration supply chain. Tom anticipates that one outcome of the conference will be more pressure toward changing how the US Government manages lands by including Indigenous voices, perspectives, and rights for sovereignty. Tom also told us that he perceives and supports a greater acceptance of the need to implement intentional genetic management through developing climate resilient adaptive admixtures of seed for restoration activities. He shared, “People are realizing that the climate has already changed, and local isn’t local anymore. Our management practices need to change now, not in the future.” What is not clear, however, is what this actually means for the practice, policy, and science of ecological restoration across the spectrum of regional and bioregional, and cultural contexts.  

A new report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the most robust and functional seed and plant material supply chains exist in the Western US, where the federal government manages up to 40% of the land in some states. Tom explained that as a result of this, “the US Government is the biggest buyer of native seeds in the country, and they’re not buying for the Eastern states as much [as they could and should!].” However, although there are significant differences between land ownership patterns and biogeography among the different regions of the US, there are also commonalities. These include “the need for seeds at scale and the need for seeds in response to environmental disasters, whether that be extreme wildfires, floods, drought, or invasive plants,” said Tom.

Germination flats of selected native species being propagated from seed with known provenance at Nasami Farm Nursery Whately, MA (Photo: Uli Lorimer).

Mr. Chuck Newman, founder of Planters’ Choice Nursery in Newton, CT, with containerized plant material grown from source-identified seed (Photo: The Seed Huntress, Sefra Alexandra).

However, what hampers the work of producers and users of native seed and nursery stock everywhere in the US and worldwide is asynchronous supply and demand. Producers of native seed want to grow at a large scale and distribute their products to as many markets as possible. Users often require seeds with locally adapted genotypes on a sporadic or project-by-project basis. This tension can stifle our ability to restore ecosystems effectively. One solution is a distributed network of seed banks and storage facilities. However, some keystone species for ecosystem and habitat restoration and reintroduction or reinforcement of populations of endangered species are recalcitrant, meaning they can’t be dried and stored for future use. For example, the seeds of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), a matrix species in many coastal habitat restoration projects along the US Eastern Coast, are only viable when freshly harvested.

Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), a matrix species in many coastal habitat restoration projects along the US Eastern Coast (Photo: Uli Lorimer)

Asynchronous seed supply and demand amidst a backdrop of accelerating climate change, ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss present is a complex problem. Regional seed partnerships or networks are better equipped to address such challenges than interventions by a single governmental agency or any single organization. These networks bring together social actors from industry, academia, government, non-profit and private organizations, and tribal groups to exchange thoughts, ideas, and resources, enabling collective action across conventional boundaries. A dozen or so seed networks, partnerships, or collaboratives are functioning in the US West, including The Oregon Native Seed Partnerships, East Cascades Native Plant Hub, Northwest Oregon Restoration Partnership Program, The Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program, Nevada Native Seed Partnership, and Wyoming Native Seed Strategy Partnership.

Local and state officials, community members, and Bureau of Land Management officials celebrate the opening of the seed warehouse in Boise, Idaho—one of the largest warehouses for native seed in the US. The Eastern US does not have large public or private seed warehouses. This means that the region does not have adequate supplies of material on hand for the next large-scale natural disaster. Seed warehousing is more challenging in the eastern states than in the dry and arid western states due to the humid climate (Photo: Lukas Eggen).

The Eastern US is experiencing a demand surge for native seed and plant material. This is due to growing investments and reallocation of land use to promote and sustain reforestation and forest, grassland, wetland, riverine, and coastline restoration, urban street tree planting and green space expansion and connection, plus forestry, agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, not to mention Pollinator Pathways design and implementation. However, the Eastern US is distinct from other regions because state governments and private individuals own most of the land. The results of a 2018 survey found that land managers and practitioners, on average, purchase seed from vendors an average of 418 miles (673 km) away! In other words, the Upper Midwest has largely captured the seed market in the Eastern US. 

That being said, many dedicated organizations, including the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank (MARS-B), the Native Plant Trust, the Ecotype Project, Eco59, Pinelands Nursery, Planters’ Choice, the Highstead Foundation, Wild Seed Project, and Hilltop Hanover Farm have been creating supplies of genetically appropriate seed and plant material of known provenance for the US Northeast. However, beyond efforts like these, seed collection, processing, and production of genetically appropriate seed and plant material is carried out on a short-term or individual project basis. Clearly, meeting the growing demand for native seed and plant materials in our region is too big of a job for any one sector or entity to tackle independently.

At this year’s National Native Seed Conference, the Native Plant Trust and the Ecological Health Network announced the launch of the Northeast Seed Network to bring together industry, academia, government, non-profit and private organizations, and tribal groups from the Ecoregions of the US Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic States. 

Map of the Omernik Level III Ecoregions of the Northeastern US (Photo: Uli Lorimer).

The conference provided an opportunity for the Northeast Seed Network to organize a symposium that brought together seven presenters to discuss the demand and lack of supply for genetically appropriate source-identified seed in the Eastern US and emerging efforts to build a network to address supply chain shortages. The symposium’s presenters highlighted the extent of the demand and lack of supply in our region, research carried out to identify and map the complex social network of supply chain actors, and how the Northeast Seed Network is leveraging that research to build the partnership’s capacity. The Northeast cohort also shared news about projects underway, including developing shared priority species lists to help spur commercial production and training programs for farmers. For example, The Ecotype Project created a Getting Started Toolkit to help build literacy amongst smallholder farmers in the region to amplify the amount of seed available for restoration and allied activities. This initiative is helping to train cohorts of seed producers in the specialty crop of source-identified ecotypic seed and led to the creation of the recently formed farmer-led seed collective Eco59. Implementing founder plots on farms has demonstrated improved ecological benefits for farmers. Incorporating founder plots of native plant species has increased the diversity of beneficial insects leading to higher pollination rates in field crops and predation reduction. 

In short, the young but determined Northeast Seed Network, with its growing membership, aims to build and reinforce connections, at a regional scale, to reduce resource competition, leverage collective expertise, and promote trust and new synergies. This is a prerequisite to increasing the accessibility of genetically diverse source-identified seed and plant material to meet the region’s restoration goals. It is also an essential process, we think, for helping the region prepare for climate change, reverse ecosystem degradation, advance equity, generate just livelihood options, and improve the health and well-being of humans and wildlife. Sign up to receive email updates and learn about joining the Northeast Seed Network.

Northeast Seed Network collaborators (Photo: Ecological Health Network).

All the participants in the Northeast Seed Network’s Symposium (Photo: Ecological Health Network).

Here’s the takeaway: inadequate seed supply hinders effective restoration efforts globally. We take heart in the news that the Committee of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s new report has recommended that the US Government form an interagency collaboration to coordinate and support regional partnerships. In a second piece in this blog space, later this year, we will provide more news of our efforts in the Northeast and discuss its relevance to what is going on elsewhere around the world.

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