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Native prairie provides more than just forage

Walking through Tellus and Lori Waddell's prairie pastureland in mid-July is a colorful experience. Pink swamp milkweed, red prairie lily, and purple coneflowers blow in the wind as the Waddells' cow/calf herd graze. Tellus, 50, says the farm's two enterprises – cattle and native wildflowers – coexist successfully.

“The cattle graze the grasses, making room for smaller forbs and plants,” says Tellus, who explains that his cattle rotate pastures each week to best manage the native wildflower populations. The flowers thrive in the 1,000 acres of native prairie in northeastern South Dakota's Coteau hills region – land that has never been tilled. “Each pasture rests for five weeks; these cows are on lush grass all season.”

A second-generation cattle producer, Tellus, 50, says he's been a seed collector since early childhood. Growing up, his family sold native tree seeds they'd collected from farm windbreaks and city boulevards to a local nursery. Today, he, wife Lori, and their youngest son, Levi, 21, collect, clean, and sell more than 25 native tree seeds and 50 varieties of native wildflower seeds from across the region to nurseries on the East and West coasts.

Harvesting tree and wildflower seeds is an arduous task that requires patience and a trained eye. All seeds are harvested by hand. Harvesting native plants on the open prairie, the Waddells hunt to find certain species. To aid in the search, Tellus says they spend time learning about the plant, its preferred habitat, and how it interacts with other prairie species.

“All plants have a purpose – to feed a butterfly or bird or to provide a habitat for other plants – like wood betony. I call it nature's Roundup because it kills grass around it so prairie lilies don't have to compete. The prairie lilies come up like crazy around it,” says Tellus, referencing a stack of wildflower identification books.

Most of the Waddells' seed goes to nurseries. Using native plants in landscaping is a growing eco-friendly, water-conscious trend, says Carter Johnson, an ecology professor at South Dakota State University (SDSU).

“Native plants are tough. They have been living in the climate for thousands of years and figured out how to survive,” says Johnson, adding that when he first began studying native plants 40 years ago, there was very little interest in native species. “We are finally taking advantage of this in landscaping, rather than forcing exotic plant varieties to survive.”

Although the Waddells are paid a premium – from $90 to $600 a pound depending on the species – Lori says that considering it takes 33,000 hand-collected wood betony seeds to equal 1 ounce, it's more than money that motivates the family.

“You can't do this job unless you enjoy it,” says Lori, pulling out a bucket of pinhead-size seed she screened by hand and is now ready to ship.

“Every year we find more native species we didn't know we had,” says Levi, who works with his parents each summer. Prairie preservation is the field this SDSU horticulture major wants to enter when he graduates in 2010.

With only 1% of the native tall grass prairie remaining, Johnson says the Waddells' operation plays a key role in continuing to preserve what's left. This spring one of Johnson's colleagues discovered a rare species of clover in the Waddells' native grassland that he thought no longer grew in the region.

“The Waddells are providing a very important service. By taking the time to learn the plants, collect, and market the seeds, they are ensuring that these plants aren't lost to extinction,” Johnson says.

By Lura Roti

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