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USDA project to produce wildflower seeds, improve soil health

Assoc. prof. Lora Perkins in her wildflower plot
Associate professor Lora Perkins of the Department of Natural Resource Management is working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture research project to determine the soil health benefits of sowing plots of native wildflowers next to corn and/or soybeans. Wildflower seed is in short supply, so harvesting them could provide another source of income for producers.

Harvesting seeds from small plots of perennial wildflowers may not only provide producers with a new income source, but also improve soil health and thereby increase the sustainability of agricultural production.

That is the impetus behind a five-year, nearly $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture research project led by Lora Perkins, an associate professor in South Dakota State University’s Department of Natural Resource Management and South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station researcher.

“This is the decade for ecosystem restoration,” Perkins said. “The focus is on getting our native areas in better shape, but to do that, we need (native wildflower) seed.”

Currently, the demand for perennial native wildflower seed exceeds the available supply. “There is an unmet market,” she continued. The vision is to include perennial wildflowers in producers’ precision agriculture portfolios.

Doctoral student Brett Lang and assoc. prof. Lora Perkins with wildflower-corn plots
Doctoral student Brett Lang, left, hoes weeds from the native wildflower plots planted alongside corn with his research adviser, associate professor Lora Perkins.

“We’re talking about small plots—any place that is less productive for corn and soybeans may work for these perennials,” Perkins said.

Other researchers have demonstrated that small plots of mixed-species native plants can provide large benefits to soil health. However, Perkins and former SDSU faculty member Shin-Yin Lee Marzano, now a research molecular biologist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service in Toledo, Ohio, are sowing only one wildflower variety in each plot to make the seeds more harvestable. These wildflowers also provide ecosystem services to bees and other pollinators.

Perkins and doctoral student Brett Lang are working with five types of wildflowers: yellow giant hyssop, white prairie clover, Prairie spiderwort, American licorice and Rocky Mountain blazing star. This year, the wildflower plots are alongside corn. Later, the researchers will plant them next to plots of soybeans.

To evaluate the wildflowers’ impact on soil health, the researchers will track nitrogen and carbon levels in the soil during multiple growing seasons. Perkins anticipates the soil health benefits may differ based on the spatial distribution of the perennials as well the specific wildflower species.

“For any type of soil, any type of condition, there should be a native plant that wants to grow there,” she said. These native plants should not need fertilizer or irrigation because they are well adapted for the conditions.

“The idea behind this grant is to demonstrate that we can put these wildflower perennials in a farm context across the landscape to get that seed, but that it also improves soil health, which benefits the crops and the producer,” Perkins said. “The goal is for this to be a viable endeavor—this should be good for the farmer and good for the ecosystem.”