Gardening: Dairy farm’s pasture plan helps revive Kincaid’s lupine
By Marty Wingate
After years of decline and inclusion on the federal endangered species list, Kincaid’s lupine has made an unexpected comeback in Lewis County, Wash., the northernmost part of its range. Credited with its success are the organic dairy farming practices at family-run Mallonee Farms near Curtis; what’s good for the heifers, it seems, is good for the earth, too.
The lupine ( Lupinus sulphureus subsp. kincaidii , also known as Lupinus oreganus var. kincaidii ) is named for Trevor Kincaid, a naturalist whose career at the University of Washington extended from his entry as a student in 1894 through his retirement as professor of zoology in 1942. The plant is indigenous to open grassland from the Willamette Valley in Oregon north to southwestern Washington. Joe Arnett, rare-plant botanist for the Washington Natural Heritage Program, explained that Native Americans historically maintained the prairies by regularly burning the land.
The Northwest prairie is an intermediate step in the succession of plants; left to their own devices, the next step would be native trees taking root, shading out the grassland plants, including the lupine.
Burning – through human intervention or fire started by lightning – removes shrubs and trees that would naturally begin to encroach on the open space. Modern threats to open land also come from invasive plants, including Scot’s broom and Himalayan blackberries, but most of the prairie has been lost because the land has been developed or taken under agriculture.
The endangered plant species that live on the remnants of grassland in southwestern Washington are protected only when growing on federal land. On private land, efforts to protect endangered plants are at the discretion of the landowner.
“We’re there at their invitation,” Arnett said of the cooperative work with the Mallonees at their dairy farm. Arnett helped the family write the conservation plan that would help maintain an environment favorable to prairie plants.
Maynard Mallonee, third-generation dairy farmer, created the pasture plan: “We manually remove the competitive weeds, we have a no-cut period, and we don’t use fertilizer or spray.” The Mallonees’ organic dairy farming practices create the right conditions for the lupine. “Their purpose matches the lupine’s requirements,” he said.
Mallonee Farms followed organic practices for years before its certification in 1997. John and Mary Mallonee, Maynard’s parents, found that the less they insinuated themselves into the landscape, the healthier the land, the cows and their family were. “It’s just a way of life for us,” said Mary Mallonee of the way she and her husband grew up in the business. “My parents believed in leaving things as natural as possible.”
As natural as possible meant they had little use for fertilizer and chemical sprays. They left the land close to its grassland prairie habitat, which created the conditions for Kincaid’s lupine to thrive.
The pasturing heifers that graze the land help, too, by eating down the grasses that outcompete the lupine. “The lupine is toxic to cattle,” Maynard Mallonee said, “and so they don’t eat it.”
The pasture plan for the farm includes manual removal of competitive weeds and a no-cut period to allow the lupine to go to seed. Mary Mallonee said that practice suited their own work schedule well: “That’s a busy time, when the lupine is going to seed,” she said, “and we wouldn’t have time to cut then, anyway.”
Existing populations of Kincaid’s lupine support the complex system of life on the prairie – in Oregon, the lupine is the prime food source for the caterpillar of the Fender’s blue butterfly, which is also on the endangered species list.
Fender’s blue hasn’t been sighted in Lewis County, and botanists are unsure if the Fender’s blue ever lived in southwestern Washington prairies – the butterfly was thought to be extinct from 1937, its last sighting in Benton County, Ore., until its rediscovery in 1989 – but, as Kincaid’s lupine continues its resurgence, perhaps Fender’s blue will follow.
If it does, it will be because the lupine’s habitat – open grassland without competition from trees and shrubs, native or otherwise – happens to match the organic methods of farming, which includes no plowing, no sprays or fertilizers and heifers that pasture on the land and can eat back the competing grasses.
“We love those win-win stories,” Arnett said.
Lupine Field Day
Mallonee Farms in Curtis, Lewis County, opens its gates to the public June 20, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., for a lupine field day. The event, hosted by Organic Valley Farms, offers the opportunity to see Kincaid’s lupine in the northernmost part of its range. State botanist Joe Arnett will be on hand to explain the native prairie habitat. A free lunch is offered, but be sure to make reservations by June 5: 360-245-3733 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
More information on the prairie species of Oregon and southwestern Washington: www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Species/PrairieSpecies/default.asp.