High prices requires balancing act at native-seed company | nnbw.com

High prices requires balancing act at native-seed company

An airplane takes another load for aerial seeding after the Holloway Fire in the Winnemucca area.

Ed and Linda Kleiner are getting a terrific price — the best in 20 years, maybe — for the native-plant seed they sell at Comstock Seed in rural Douglas County.

But the high prices and strong demand, Ed Kleiner says, bring their own problems.

The biggest: How to make sure Comstock Seed has sufficient inventory to meet the demand of longtime customers even while federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management are paying big dollars for large amounts of seed to restore vegetation damaged during bad years for fire throughout the West.

Demand is getting a push, too, from mining operators in Nevada and neighboring states that buy big quantities of native-plant seeds to restore former surface-mining sites.

And the balancing act is all the greater because many of the longtime customers for Comstock Seed’s products — landscape companies working on new projects — remain on the sidelines.

“These markets are volatile,” says Kleiner, who’s been riding the volatility for more than three decades as a niche specialist within niche that isn’t all that big to begin with.

Here’s how it works:

Comstock Seeds contracts with freelance seed collectors who gather seeds for dozens from dozens of native plants — everything from alkaligrass to spiny hopsage to purple coneflower.

The search, he says, often requires collectors to understand what sorts of plants are likely to be growing under the tree they see on a distant ridgeline.

“We are very good at snooping out the species that are in demand,” he says.

Seed is shipped to the company’s facilities south of Minden, where it’s cleaned, tested, bagged and readied for sale in a warehouse that typically has 200 varieties of seeds ready for shipment.

The company, Kleiner says, specializes in just three ecosystems —the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin and the Sierra. The differences in the growing season in the three ecosystems allows Comstock Seed to spread its busy season across much of the year.

Comstock Seed moved to rural Minden from Reno in 1999 as it shifted its focus from retail sales of small quantities of seed to homeowners and landscape professionals to big sales to federal agencies, mining companies and utilities.

But even though retail sales account for only a small piece of Comstock Seeds’ business these days, Ed and Linda Kleiner try to maintain the same sort of close contact with their customers that helped them thrive when they launched firm 30 years ago.

Ed Kleiner had learned about plant ecology while he was a kid, bouncing along in the front seat of a pickup truck with his father, a plant ecologist in Utah.

He grew up, got a degree in business from the University of Nevada, Reno, attended law school in Oregon for a while, and was encouraged to begin collecting seeds by a cousin.

Working alongside his wife, who is trained as an accountant, the Kleiners spent three years in their truck, tracking down native plants as they began to seed all across the West.

“We’re both ex-hippies, basically,” Ed Kleiner says.

When it came time to settle down, they chose Reno — even then, they could see the growing demand for native seeds for mine restoration — and opened their small shop on the west side of town.

After moving the business to its current location along Highway 88, the Kleiners fixed up a run-down milking parlor to house Comstock Seeds.

Nearby, they’ve been working to create a highly efficient home from the components of an 1851-era barn.

Comstock Seeds took a significant bite out of its power costs with installation of a photovoltaic system. With the solar panels in place, power costs — largely, the cost of running seed-cleaning equipment — have fallen to $8 a month from their previous average of $230 a month.

The $82,000 price tag for the system was partially funded with a $19,995 rural development grant from the Department of Agriculture as well as conservation incentives from NV Energy.

The USDA also guaranteed a $20,250 loan from Wells Fargo to finance the project.