New fire extinguisher: bunchgrass

An Oregon man leads a crusade to grow native grasses, which are drought- and fire-resistant

Despite the severe drought gripping the Northwest, Andy Huber is a happy farmer. While his neighbors in the Grande Ronde valley of northeastern Oregon struggle to keep thirsty mint crops alive, Mr. Huber's crops don't need a drop of irrigation. In fact, they have blossomed in the dry heat like never before.

That's good, because this is the second-worst water year on record. "We haven't seen drought like this since 1977," says Shad Hatten, the local water master. "We will probably end up with a lot of dead crops."

What is Huber's secret?

He grows grasses and wildflowers - but only those that are native to eastern Oregon. And native species like bunchgrass, one of his principal crops, have become key tools in the fight against wildfire. As part of an extensive effort to avoid last year's widespread fires, the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are eager to reintroduce drought-resistant native grasses to wilderness areas that are particularly susceptible to fire, and they're willing to pay a high price for the seed. Unlike exotic species, these grasses stay green through summer and are already adapted to the fire cycle.

"Last year over 100,000 acres burned in Wallowa County," says Bob Both, an Oregon fire-management officer. "Eighty-eight percent of that was grassland. Invasive [non-native] cheatgrass burns like gasoline. It explodes on you. Native bunch grasses don't burn so fast or so hot."

With the seed selling for $20 to $25 dollars per pound (compared with $5 or $6 for lawn grass seed), it's a profitable crop as well. Yet Huber is more interested in the ecological and community benefits. A farm boy from Wisconsin turned part-time professor of crop and soil science at Eastern Oregon University, he bought a 160-acre parcel on top of a rocky ridge in the Blue Mountains in 1992. A year later, he deeded the land to a foundation as a native-plant preserve. Now, he works it as a nonprofit farmer.

"Some people think I'm crazy to buy land and then give it away," he says from under a battered hat, "but I did it because it felt right. This place is so beautiful, I knew immediately there was something more important here than a plot to grow wheat."

The ridge is harsh farmland, with no accessible water, baking heat in summer, and bitter cold in winter. But its harvest is a virtual gold mine. Meadows of iridescent blue and sunny yellow wildflowers are interspersed with fields of the coarse bunchgrass.

Huber was the first farmer in the area to grow species like blue-bunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue. But instead of selling his seed directly to the eager buyers, he gives it to local farmers and requires no payment until they sell a crop. As a result, 10 nearby farms now raise native grass. "My objective was never to make money," Huber says, "but to restore biodiversity and to find another source of income for the farmers in this valley."

Despite the high price the seed demands, start-up costs are high: The seed takes several years to mature, and yields on native-grass crops are unpredictable.

"It's a risky business, but it maintains an excellent price on the market," says Bill Teeter, the first farmer to grow Huber's seeds. "I was fortunate to be introduced to this through Andy. He had to collect the original seeds by hand." This year Mr. Teeter will harvest more than 30 acres of Idaho fescue.

"The demand for native grasses is huge," says Paul Boehne, a local Forest Service staffer. "Our district needs 150 to 200 pounds of native-grass seed each year, minimum. At present we can get only about 100 pounds."

Some species, like squirrel-tail bottlebrush, are not available at all, but Huber's crop of bottlebrush will be ready next year. The professor now grows about 20 acres of six different varieties of native grass, doing most of the work by hand. He plants 1,000 new trees each spring, plus a multitude of rare wildflowers.

Huber's neighbors also cheer him on. "That's our watershed he's working in," says local resident Einav Shochat. "If he wasn't growing trees and flowers, some other farmer would be spraying the ridge with pesticides. Because of Andy, our water is safe and he's giving us a buffer from fire."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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