We weren’t sure what to expect as we headed into our second year of seed collection for the Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project. Finding suitable wild populations for each ecotype we produce (coastal, mountain, piedmont) is difficult to begin with, and we wanted to give last year’s collection sites a break this year to make sure there are no negative impacts on the wild populations. This was the last full year to collect the material needed for the current scope of this project, so it was imperative that we used every resource possible to collect all 18 of our target species. Luckily, some key collaborations helped save the season. 

A huge part of this year’s success was due to the Virginia Master Naturalists, who established a statewide project to help us with seed collection. VMN volunteers collected more than a third of our entire final seed supply. We also had assistance from several public schools and other independent volunteers who made time to collect seeds for the project!

Additionally, the Department of Wildlife Resources gave us permission to collect seeds at over a dozen different wildlife management areas. With the dedication of our many volunteers, help from VMN, and the partnership with DWR, we were able to collect all 18 target species and we expanded our reach into mountain and coastal areas. 

Liz Keily and Maeve Coker assisting with the collection of coastal plain ecotype seeds.

As we wait for spring and the next growing season, we are working on securing additional funding to extend the project another three years. This is the critical next step to see more Virginia ecotype seed hit the market because it will help us get our harvesting operations to the commercial scale. 

We’re planning to expand the project by recruiting more farmers in the western portion of Virginia, responding to interest from several public schools regarding implementing programs for native plant propagation, and collaborating with the Rappahannock Tribe to establish a seed harvesting operation. All of this interest helps reaffirm what we know about this project–it has a broad range of applications and there are countless ways that it can benefit everyone from the farmers who grow the seeds, the consumers who plant them, and of course, the wildlife that depend on native plants. 

Robert Heffler and company at Slade Farms harvesting the first seed produced on the project!

Thank you to our partners and collaborators thus far:

The Nature Conservancy

Ernst Conservation Seeds

Capital Region Land Conservancy

Department of Conservation Recreation

Virginia State University

Department of Wildlife Resources

Center for Urban Habitats

Virginia Master Naturalists

Friends of Dragon Run

Chancellor’s Rock Farm

Slade Farms

Pat Acres Farm

Morning Glory Farm

Rev. Dr. Johnny & Fonda Hicks

Marky Dewhirst & Scott Barboza

We are one year into our Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project, and so much has already been accomplished! Our Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock has been busy growing plugs, assisting participating farmers, and deepening connections with partners. We caught him between site visits for an update:

1. What were you excited to accomplish over the summer?

IM: We were mostly planning for the fall and focusing on keeping the plants in the greenhouse alive. There were a few species that hadn’t been collected last year and these were picked up by a few volunteers this summer. It was great to officially collect all 18 species for the project. Eastern Smooth Beardtongue (Penstemon laevigatus) proved difficult to obtain and I almost gave up on collecting it this year. (Thank you Center for Urban Habitats! for sharing seeds with us!)

We also finished planting our native seed harvest demonstration plot here at Clifton. This will give us a space to start our own commercial seed production and also serve as an example to prospective farmers.

2. It’s seed collection season again. What is different about this year compared to last year?

IM: This year I am focused less on the volume of seed collected and more on the diversity of populations collected from. Last year we collected a great amount of seed but were limited in the areas of Virginia that we collected from. I’d like to make up for that and visit more areas around the state. This way we can maximize the genetic diversity in our seeds.

3. How are the seed farmers progressing? 

IM: Everyone is in a slightly different stage. Some people have seeds ready to harvest this year, some just planted this fall, but all are on track to meet the project objectives!

Farmers planting their first plot of native, local ecotype plants!

Looking back on what the Clifton greenhouse looked like at the beginning of the project…

And what the Clifton greenhouse looked like at the height of summer growing!

(If you’re not familiar with the Native Seed Pilot Project, check out this news release.)

Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock joined our staff in October and immediately got to work collecting seeds with the help of partner organizations and several volunteers. We caught up with Isaac to ask him how the collection season went.

Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock standing in front of a portion of the seeds collected this season.

Q: What were your goals for this fall?
IM: Our primary goal was to collect as much seed as possible from the three ecoregions of Virginia (Mountains, Piedmont, Coastal Plain). Our target species for this project are common plants found throughout the state, but in order to ensure we were collecting plants considered Virginia ecotypes we needed to confirm the sites we were visiting had no prior history of seeding or planting that would have come from outside sources.

Another goal this season was to record new sites that could be potential collection areas for future years. By growing our inventory of potential collection sites, we’ll have the ability to collect a larger quantity of seed overall but also reduce our dependence on any given population. Collecting too much seed from one area can be detrimental to the given species and their associated ecosystem. Having as little as possible impact on these places is a vital part of this project.

Q: What is one challenge you faced?
IM: One of the most significant challenges so far in this project has been locating species with populations large enough to sustainably collect seed from. There are many reasons for this challenge, but habitat destruction has the most significant impact. Our goal is to bring these native plants to the seed market in order to make them more widely available in Virginia and introduce a lucrative crop for farmers around the state, but also to ensure the survival of these species for their own sake and for the animals that depend on them. Continued spread of urban development makes things difficult for our state’s biodiversity and collecting these species now will hopefully assist in maintaining healthy populations or, in some cases, reintroducing them to areas that they may have been extirpated.

Q: What went well?
IM: Despite the shortened collection season [because Isaac started in October] and the ongoing search for new collection sites, we were able to collect a considerable amount of seed this year. We managed to collect seeds for sixteen of our eighteen target species.

Additionally, the majority of the seed collected this season came from private land with owners kind enough to let us do so. Many of these landowners were acquainted with the native plants on their land and were excited to contribute to their conservation, while others were excited to learn new things about their property. A project like this provides a great example of the value native plants bring. I believe this can provide people with an elevated appreciation for the natural world outside their front door and aid in long-term conservation of these species.

Q: What’s next?
IM: As we move into winter, we have two priorities for the coming year. With the assistance of farmer advocate organizations, we are working to recruit farmers in the northern Piedmont region that would be interested in incorporating native plants into their current agricultural system. We also have to prepare for plug production in the spring while the seeds are being processed by our partner Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania. Clifton will be building a new greenhouse that will be able to produce roughly 18,000 plugs. Once the plugs are ready, we will provide them to farmers at no cost to plant for future seed collection.



Stay tuned for news about our new greenhouse in the next couple of months! And if you are a farmer who would like to learn more about the project please email Isaac at imatlock@cliftoninstitute.org

WARRENTON, VA (Sept. 23, 2022) — The Clifton Institute is pleased to announce it has received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund a new program called The Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project. This project will launch the native seed industry in Virginia, which will make it possible to plant ecologically appropriate wildflower meadows.

There is substantial demand for seeds of native wildflowers and grasses for pollinator friendly solar installations, meadow plantings, and roadside revegetation in Virginia. But seeds of several species of plants that are common in native grasslands in the state, and beneficial for pollinators, are unavailable from seed companies. Furthermore, seeds of most species that are available have out-of-state genetics, which limits their utility to restore plant communities and provide pollinator habitat. These plants often bloom at the wrong time for our local insects or they’re too tall or too short.

“Native plants, especially native plants with local genetics, are crucial for supporting native insects, birds, and other wildlife,” says Clifton Institute Executive Director Bert Harris. “Not being able to buy the seeds of plant species native to Virginia, let alone from Virginian populations, is a critical obstacle to creating pollinator habitat statewide.”


Co-Director Bert Harris collects seeds.

The grant will fund a new Native Seed Coordinator position at The Clifton Institute. The Native Seed Coordinator with work with partners and volunteers to collect seeds of 15 species of wildflowers and grasses across the state. A new greenhouse at the Clifton Institute will also be partly funded by the grant and seedlings will be grown to then be transplanted in farmers’ fields. Virginia State University and Clifton Institute staff will work to establish a network of local producers who can serve as a commercial source of native seeds. In particular, the project will focus on equipping underserved farmers with the tools and skills they need to grow and sell this new high value crop. Other key partners in the project are the Virginia Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Dept. of Wildlife Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Ernst Conservation Seeds, and the Capital Region Land Conservancy.