A Native Plant Paradigm Shift

Bill Neiman on native prairie restoration: “People can rebuild this,” he says. “All is not lost.”

Bill Neiman on native prairie restoration: “People can rebuild this,” he says. “All is not lost.”

Cover_Oct15_smallOver the past two years, I’ve gotten to know Bill Neiman: a man of sunlight and soil who likes dirt, not asphalt, beneath his feet. My profile of Neiman, his family, and their Native American Seed farm operation appears in the October 2015 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.

My story aims to bring into sharp focus the connections between native habitat, the management of water, and the sustainability of wildlife.

Seated northeast of Junction at the intersection of nine of Texas’ 11 ecoregions, Native American Seed (www.seedsource.com/Default.asp) specializes in the harvest and sale of wildflower seeds and prairie grasses native to those regions and the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana bioregion. As the most easily recognized of Native American Seed’s operations, the West Texas farm itself, as a research laboratory for seeds harvested at off-site locations, provides the best examples of how native habitat sustains wildlife.

Within the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana bioregion, so much of the native vegetation upon which ecosystems depend is gone. But trying to move such a complex issue into mainstream consciousness is a tough sell, Neiman says. Generally speaking, city dwellers who spend most of their lives on concrete don’t consider the full implications of what’s being lost as urban development creeps farther into the countryside.

It’s an issue that will be front and center tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 24, at the Hill Country Alliance’s Annual Leadership Summit in Fredericksburg (see my related blog post “Protecting the Hill Country’s Resources” at https://thelightoftheroad.com/category/hill-country-alliance/). Neiman, who sits on the HCA’s board of directors, will be in attendance, along with many other conservationists.

Photo credit: Native American Seed

Photo credit: Native American Seed

The balance between native crops and wildlife on the Native American Seed farm teaches us the right questions to ask. Instead of asking “Where has all the wildlife gone?” we should be pondering: “Where have all the native grasses and wildflowers gone?”

Case in point at Native American Seed: During the extreme drought conditions of 2011, clouds of painted buntings (above) descended on rows of Texas cupgrass (Eriochola sericea), surviving on the nutritious seeds of this tall grass that has almost been grazed to extinction.

Milkweed varieties grown on the farm provide nectar and breeding habitat for migrating monarch butterflies, whose numbers are dropping at an alarming rate.

The American Basketflower (Centaurea americana, as seen below) that’s growing successfully on the farm is a common, but relatively unknown, pink-bloomed pollinator for bees and butterflies. This healthful nectar wildflower favored by many native pollinators while in bloom offers large, nutritious oily seeds for songbirds, quail and turkey later in its life cycle.

Photo credit: Native American Seed

Photo credit: Native American Seed

The entire Neiman family, along with 21 full-time employees, is involved in Native American Seed’s daily operations: Bill’s wife, Jan, oversees business administration; their daughter, Emily, a marketing and public education specialist, coordinates the production of fall and spring seed catalogs; their son, Weston, handles long-range projections; and George Cates, Emily’s partner, specializes in landowner consultations, research and educational public speaking.

But the Native American Seed story is much bigger than what happens on the Neiman family’s 63-acre farm. And the story of Bill Neiman and Native American Seed is best visualized in seeds: millions and billions of seeds primarily harvested during large-scale tall-grass harvests in the fall. Weston Neiman, the farm’s 26-year-old special projects coordinator, estimated that the 2014 fall harvests — conducted in the Lost Pines, Pineywoods, Coastal Bend and Blackland Prairie regions — yielded 6.25 billion little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grass seeds: almost one seed for every person on the planet.

For more than a quarter century, Neiman, now 61, has been bringing value to native plants, encouraging landowners and homeowners — anyone with a patch of ground — to read the land: to understand where they live and what grew there, natively, 150 years ago without human interference. He teaches that the fundamentals of restored native prairie lie beneath the surface, where root systems act like sponges, holding water and slowly releasing it back to aquifers, rivers, and other plants.

Any landowner, Neiman says, can build basins of swales and berms that create a stair-stepping, self-irrigating system of water. It’s good, he says, to create depressions — old-fashioned mud puddles — in one’s own yard, just as he did as a 5-year-old playing beneath the gigantic horse apple trees in his family’s rural Dallas backyard. As Neiman croaks in his familiar, fired-up voice, “Gee, that’s where the butterflies hang out! That’s where the frogs go! The earth worms!”

Neiman’s work circles back to water, and the healing of native habitats, time and again. In June, two weeks after catastrophic Memorial Day weekend flooding on the Blanco River claimed lives, destroyed homes and crumpled centuries-old bald cypress trees, a host of entities including Native American Seed, the Hill Country Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Hays County Master Naturalists, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department partnered to hold riparian recovery workshops in Wimberley and Blanco.

The workshops epitomized Neiman’s vision: Any ecosystem, no matter how badly damaged, can be ecologically restored.

Neiman wrestles with his own philosophical question: Are we behaviorally qualified to receive a restored environment? The answer, he says, hinges on instilling a code of land ethics in the hearts and minds of young people. For a paradigm shift to occur, it will fall upon the next generation to plant new seeds of ecological restoration.

“People can rebuild this,” Neiman says. “All is not lost.”

The Native American Seed farm serves as a research laboratory, with seeds harvested from off-site locations growing in fields protected by scarecrows wearing straw hats and colorful, long-sleeve shirts.

The Native American Seed farm serves as a research laboratory, with seeds harvested from off-site locations growing in fields protected by scarecrows wearing straw hats and colorful, long-sleeve shirts.

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