Richard and Claire Dunne grow sagebrush on Absaroka Farm in northcentral Wyoming. The seeds are sold for use in land reclamation. Where some people see a weed, others see a gold mine... At least that’s the case in Richard and Claire Dunne’s Absaroka Farm in North Central, Wyoming. A farm that, if you drove past it, you might think was just another stretch of the prairie.
Although sagebrush seed is in demand, growing it commercially is a niche marked… and some people think it’s crazy. Wyoming Public Radio’s Luke Hammons filed this report.
[Sound of Richard Dunne working on a fertilizer injector in his greenhouse on the Absaroka Farm.]
LUKE HAMMONS: That’s Richard Dunne, fixing a fertilizer injector in the greenhouse on his farm in Worland, Wyoming. But this isn’t just any farm… Outside his greenhouse, row after row of sagebrush line the prairie.
RICHARD DUNNE: Sagebrush is the mainspring of the environment, of the ecology in Wyoming. There’s over a thousand species that depend upon sagebrush at some stage in their lives.
HAMMONS: Past the sagebrush are rows of native Wyoming plants, among them: wildflowers, shrubs, penstemon, rabbit brush, four wing salt bush, and a few legumes.
Richard Dunne and his wife, Claire, raise these plants to sell their seeds. They started their farm in 1992. Before then, they mostly harvested seeds from wild plants, using homemade tools like a hopper and tennis racket. They began growing native plants, because wild plants were often old and had low quality seeds. And if you collect seeds outdoors, you’re at the mercy of the weather.
But who wants to buy sagebrush seed?
DUNNE: Well, the seed is used in reclamation. So anybody who digs a hole, anybody who burns up a forest or a range land… Most of our seed goes into rehabilitation after the range has been disturbed.
HAMMONS: The seed is bought by companies and agencies required to plant native flora on land disturbed by mining projects, forest fires, or other events. Dunne says business is good, and that he has sold seed as far away as China and Peru, but mainly he sells to reclamation companies in the Mountain West.
Peter Stahl directs the Wyoming Restoration and Reclamation Center. He says that the market for native seed really grew after 1977 when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed. This law requires that mining companies who disturb the range return it to its original condition.
Stahl says that based on the law, sowing native plants is now an essential part of mining.
PETER STAHL: If we cannot successfully reclaim the lands and habitats that we disturb, we can’t extract those resources based on the current laws.
HAMMONS: Former Senior Environmental Engineer in Charge of Reclamation at the Cordero Rojo Mine, Roy Liedtke worked on projects under the reclamation law. He says, in the beginning, they just wanted something to grow on the disturbed land.
ROY LIEDTKE: We thought if we had grass out there that was successful reclamation. And in the later years, we started to look a lot more at what was growing out there.
HAMMONS: As reclamation standards evolved, so did the industry’s techniques. They became more concerned about having a mix of native plants to support animal habitat and improve the range.
Liedtke says its essential reclamation projects in the state use native Wyoming seed like the Dunne’s, because Wyoming plants have adapted to drought and cold winters. He adds that sagebrush from New Mexico planted in Wyoming could die off during an especially cold winter or dry summer.
LIEDTKE: Five or six or ten years later, you know, you might get into a drought or something like that, and a lot of those plants would die off, and they just were not as long lived.
HAMMONS: Rangeland Management Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, Jonathan Sheeler uses native seed on land devastated by forest fires. He says he trusts the Dunne’s because their seed has very few noxious weeds.
JONATHAN SHEELER: Usually, the first plants that come in are the undesirable weeds. So you use native plants to help get a leg up, so to speak, on some of the other weeds you don’t want coming in.
HAMMONS: A few years ago, Dunne even lobbied to get more stringent laws in place for the amount of weeds that could legally be in a bag of seed. He succeeded, and the Wyoming Society of Range Management awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.
But Dunne says the idea of growing sagebrush is still funny to people outside the world of reclamation. All of the agricultural grants he’s applied for have been denied.
RICHARD DUNNE: They think I’m crazy. I’m so far past what you would consider a normal perception of cutting edge that generally I’m not taken seriously.
HAMMONS: So Dunne has to innovate on his own. He tells a story about an auction he attended looking for tools. He had his eye on a cotton picker.
DUNNE: When the item came up for auction, the auctioneer snickered and said, “Well, here we have the next item. It’s a cotton-picker, but we call it a Montana sagebrush harvester!” And everybody thought that was a joke, but for me, who was actually looking to see if it could harvest sagebrush, it was an especially delicious joke.
HAMMONS: He currently has four full time workers, and during harvest he hires at least ten more. He says that although he has enjoyed the financial success of his farm, what really excites him is breaking new ground in agriculture.
For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Luke Hammons.