By Melissae Fellet
Standing on a hill at the heart of the Watsonville Slough system, Jonathan Pilch points out a small field covered with golden straw for the winter. This field is a little different from the nearby plots of greens and the strawberry fields visible around the Pajaro Valley. Its neat, rice-straw covered rows contain native grasses and wildflowers.
Pilch is restoration director at Watsonville Wetlands Watch , a group that’s working to restore the wetlands of the Pajaro Valley. Three years ago, the group started a small farm to grow plants native to coastal prairies so that they could collect the seeds for their habitat restoration projects.
That first year, Pilch and his colleagues planted about 30,000 little plug plants grown from seed gathered around the area on a half-acre farm. Now the seed farm has grown to include 19 different species on 1.25 acres of land. Mary Paul, a restoration specialist with the group, says this farm generates quantities of seed that would otherwise be hard to find in the wild.
“It’s probably unlikely that we’d be able to get 100 pounds of wild seed without having it at a production level like this,” she says.
Few Sources of Native Seed Remain
That’s because there are few pockets of coastal prairies left in the Watsonville slough system. As agriculture moved into the Pajaro Valley, people drained the marshes of the Watsonville slough to reveal farming land. Now Watsonville Wetlands Watch returns native habitat to retired agriculture fields near the wetlands and restores land overrun with invasive weeds. It’s possible to buy native seeds for such work. But Pilch says the group’s goals for their projects meant it was easier to grow their own seeds than buy them.
“It was really important to us to have the genetic material that’s specific to our watershed,” he says. “We also grow native seed 100% organically and we don’t know of any other production place where you can purchase organically grown, locally sourced native seed.”
Their homegrown seed farm includes grasses like meadow barley, purple needle grass, and blue wild rye as well as flowers like yarrow, California poppy, and California buttercups.
Pilch says hiring local farm crews has been key to their high level production. The crews bring their expertise and equipment to the seed farm in the winter during their down season.
A Learning Process
That help helps, but come harvest time, it’s still hard work to separate the seeds from the rest of the plant. Paul shows me how they clean the seeds. She takes a handful of dried plant parts and chaff and places it atop a slotted metal screen resting on top of an open bucket. Then Paul rubs it over the screen so that the seeds fall through tiny slots in the screen.
Different screens have different sized slots depending on the seeds being processed. She swirls the material on top of the screen until most of the seed falls through. A peek in the bucket reveals tiny seeds mixed with less chaff than before.
“One of the unique things is that every native seed has its own very specific way of harvest, cleaning and processing,” Pilch says. “So we’re really learning as we go here in terms of how to efficiently clean and harvest. Over the last three years the speed at which we’re harvesting and processing has really increased. And so we’re optimistic that in three more years we’re going to be that much more efficient.”
He expects the need for native seed, and thus the farm, will grow as the public continues to appreciate native ecology restoration. “The end is not in sight,” Pilch says. “That’s the typical rule with ecological restoration. It’s the 50 year, 100 year time frame that we’re looking at in terms of our process.”
Even in the short term, their restoration projects are having an effect. That day ducks, red winged blackbirds, and red tailed hawks visited the farm, spending time in nearby Harkins Slough.