Summer Intern Eric Rannestad ’18 Investigates Cheatgrass at ECONorthwest in Portland, OR

Definitely not an art studio. Pictured above: Eric Rannestad out of his element, but excited to get going.

Fresh off my flight from Glasgow, Scotland where I was studying just a few days before, there certainly were more than a few things to adjust to: like the absence of deafening tablesaws, bandsaws, and drills spinning at all times during the night, like delivering cloths to the drycleaners, and attending bi-weekly professional development meetings. I arrived in Portland, Oregon on an art school schedule: late “mornings” and really late nights. The cumulative time abnormalities of a nocturnal art production schedule, and traveling eight hours east of the UK had me naturally waking up 8am and asleep at 9pm: ready for the 9-5 grind.

My first day at ECONorthwest was nerve-racking and disorienting, but affirmed that I joined a unique company, made up of talented people, all doing very interesting economic work.  My advisor and I went for lunch to discuss my goals for the summer: familiarize myself with GIS, Python, and working in the field of natural resource economics. We discussed different avenues and resources to meet these goals but, conversation quickly turned to my main project: a market analysis of native seed in the Great Basin.

The goal is to offer a new, economic solution to the cheatgrass problem. Cheatgrass is an invasive annual grass that has taken over large swaths of land of the Interior West, and is regarded as one of the most difficult restoration problems in the world. The plant is incredibly resilient to harsh environments and thrives on disturbed sites. These attributes, in conjunction with increasing wildfire frequency in the region, has allowed the plant to spread via the fire-cheatgrass cycle: a devastating system of wildfire, cheatgrass invasion, and more wildfire. Land managers have been fighting this trend for decades by reseeding disturbed sites before cheatgrass can take hold.  The only problem is: it’s hard to get anything to grow in the Desert—particularly on these disturbed sites and burn zones.  Then when a reseeding fails, a lot of money and effort is wasted. The next year cheatgrass forms another flammable monoculture and this destructive cycle continues.

The Nature Conservancy, in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture have been developing seed treatments to augment the restoration efforts of land managers in the West. Their work has shown significant increases in seeding success rates and very well could be a missing corner piece to the 1000 piece cheatgrass puzzle.  My job is to learn as much as I could about the restoration seed market and supply chain for the Great Basin. As well as learn about the different product pathways available to move their technology to production, then present the accumulation of my findings.

Jerry Benson’s, BFI Seeds is a native plant grower in Central Washington. They specialize in source identified (yellow tag) seed – a growing sector of the native seed industry.

I am working alongside an Intel Encore Fellow to interview native seed suppliers, managers of seed distribution centers, seed coating and treatment companies, BLM officials, and ecologists at the USFS. I am learning how seed is collected, grown, harvested, cleaned, and distributed; the problems and risks associated with native seed production, and about the numerous opinions that fill this small industry. I have the pleasure of talking with a lot of very characterful and interesting people, and would encourage everyone to go out and learn more about the agricultural community that too many of us forget about, even those of us studying in a town surrounded by the industry.

As my internship comes to a close and I prepare to report my findings, I have been reflecting on how much I have learned about the topic of native seeds.  It has been really rewarding to contribute my effort to a larger problem, especially one that occupies a section of the country I have grown to care so much about. And to think… before I boarded my flight to Portland I could hardly tell someone who the heck actually buys native seed — but now — boy oh boy, could I talk your ear off.

Experiences like Eric’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff.

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