We are grateful for the invitation to write an article for the FloridaGardener.com. It may not be proper literary etiquette but I will begin with an introduction. We are located near the small town of Greenville, Florida which happens to be (I can’t seem to ever leave this out) the hometown of musical legend Ray Charles. My wife and I have three daughters and handle the daily management of our business, Sandy Ford Restorations, LLC.
In regards to our background the major debt we owe is to agriculture. Both sides of my wife Kathy Holden Reams’ family and both sides of my family have farmed the Big Bend Area of North Florida for six straight generations. For centuries, these and other people in this area learned the inseparability of farming and land stewardship.
I was raised on a farm and after leaving college at age 21 soon began farming on my own. Row crops, forage and beef cattle were our only sources of income. I helped my father start a hunting preserve which he operated for 23 years. It was there that I learned the basics of groundcover management for wildlife.
In 2004 I met Calvin Ernst of Ernst Conservation Seeds. Soon after we met he asked me to help him get his new native seed business up and running in Suwannee County, FL. For the next five years I managed Ernst Southern Native Seeds and was also formally trained both in plant identification and ecosystems restoration.
This position involved wild harvesting selected native grasses and wildflower seeds and growing seedlings of them. We then expanded them into field production. We managed these crops in the field and developed some novel selective weed management strategies and new and innovative approaches of seed production, harvest, cleaning, processing and treatments. Over the years I became quite skilled at consistently growing natives from seed. During this time we also continued to establish native seed crops on our own farm and on rented land. Today, Sandy Ford Farms, LLC has over 400 acres of native seed production. We also cut and bale native grass hay in June before harvesting seed from it in the fall.
In 2008, in response to the demand for expertise in the installation of this material in the field we formed Sandy Ford Restorations, LLC. We began providing consultation, herbicide application and both seeding and custom growing of live native plants for various applications including wildlife habitat, landscaping, erosion control and cattle forage. Sandy Ford Restorations, LLC is still involved in the wild seed harvest and expansion of species we believe to have restoration value. Current projects include a new patent-pending wildlife food plot system and participation in a federal bioenergy research grant involving switchgrass biomass logistics.
The role of native grasses in our quest for energy independence is a topic I would like to discuss briefly while I have this opportunity.
I have been covering my eyes when news of the oil debacle comes on TV. I have been like the kid who puts his fingers in his ears and shouts, “LALALALALALA” when I have heard them make comments about the gravity of this situation and the ecological nightmare that is unfolding. A bad way to begin this discussion, yes, but it is worth lamenting. The finger pointing started on the first day and ridiculously enough, that seems to be what’s most important. I think we all need to point a finger at ourselves for allowing this to happen. I find it hard to stand on the “green” soapbox when I drive a ¾ ton 4-wheel-drive diesel truck and stay cool in the summer with coal generated electricity but after this mess in the Gulf the thought of pumping crude oil out of a hole makes me nauseated.
We need to pick up the pace in the commercialization of bioenergy. From the outset I will say that I am not in favor of the crude incineration of biomass as it is a waste of energy and is not sustainable. However I do see a very important role for biomass in more efficient conversion methods. While we are growing this new industry we need to remember to retain an ecological balance. Since wood chips are and have been used for many years to fuel boilers etc. the current infrastructure is designed to handle wood. It is the temptation for new bioenergy facilities to focus only on wood as a source of biomass and I am afraid this may lead to some very bad choices with regard to our environment.
Historically, open pine forestlands with a grass understory dominated the landscape and large grass savannas were a common characteristic of the Southeastern Coastal Plain. This was especially true in the Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Province areas of Florida and southern and coastal Georgia and Alabama. Open grasslands and savannas were found in outer sandy coastal areas as well as inland.
Native warm-season grass (NWSG) seed is commercially available now because it has proven its value as livestock forage and for land reclamation. Since the main focus has been on pine wood products for biomass few realize that it is scientifically proven that native grasslands are superior to pine forestlands for biomass production in the following areas: Yield, carbon sequestration, net energy gain, erosion control, water usage and wildlife habitat.
For one example, switchgrass outperforms pines in tons of dry matter per acre per year in every setting especially in the Southeast where the high-yielding “lowland” switchgrasses (Alamo, Kanlow) grow. Moreover, it is much friendlier to our aquifer as switchgrass and other NWSG produce biomass much more efficiently in terms of water usage than do trees.
Another example is regarding carbon sequestration. The total global soil carbon pool is twice the size of the plant carbon pool and is the only one considered in regard to a biomass production system. It is a proven scientific fact that grasslands provide far superior soil sequestration of carbon than do woodlands which allow escape of carbon from the soil. Grasses send carbon well below the surface and trap it there. While trees store more carbon in their plant tissues than grasses it is a mute point when considering the use of trees for bioenergy production, which releases that carbon into the atmosphere.
NWSG are long-lived perennials that produce high yields of biomass for many years. During this time soil is kept totally intact and stable unlike a timber harvesting operation, which causes major soil disturbance leading to erosion, pollution and soil carbon loss.
NWSG occur naturally throughout the region and are already functional and even critical components of our ecosystem. There are absolutely no environmental fears regarding the large-scale establishment of NWSG. It is surprising that there is so much promotion of exotic trees and vegetation as there are so many examples of awful consequences from the introduction of them in the past. Despite the potential biomass production, due to the heavy burden on our aquifer as well as the potential of invasiveness this is a mistake waiting to happen. It seems obvious to us that this message needs to be heard.
It is my hope that new cellulosic biofuels facilities, as they come online will install flexible systems that will utilize various types of biomass and not just one. As we face the real possibility of becoming energy independent I also hope citizens will be open-minded. Our nation being dependent on foreign oil is a very serious situation so we must not hold back alternative renewable energy. At the same time, we also need to be wise in our discernment of what ideas could be too ecologically risky.
Sandy Ford Restorations, LLC will continue to promote the use of native grasses for biomass, livestock forage, habitat restoration and ornamental usage. If we can ever be of assistance please don’t hesitate to contact us. Visit us online at www.sandyfordrestorations.com
Joe S. Reams, III