Donor Highlight: The Man of Many Seeds

“In for a penny, in for a pound.”

That’s what Ron Endres says about the past decade he’s spent devoting countless hours to collecting, processing, and distributing native seeds for habitat restoration work to non-profit groups. By supplying seeds to everything from small projects like schoolyard gardens to large 100+ acre conservancies to every one of DALC’s preserves, Ron’s dedication has brought native plants back in all corners of the Driftless, and beyond.

“Large companies and conservation groups have seed programs, but no individual that I know of does what I do on this scale,” Ron says. “It’s kind of an odd thing trying to explain to friends and family what and why I do what I do.”

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rusty patched bumble bee Judy Cardin.jpg
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Full bags at a seed harvest at Hickory Hill in Cross Plains.

Seed collecting at Indian Lake. Photo by Denny Connor.

A small portion of the many students who helped plant Ron's donated seed at Patrick Marsh. Photo by Roberta Herschleb.

An endangered rusty-patched bumblebee on Culver's root grown from seed donated by Ron at Holy Wisdom Monastery.

Photo by Judy Cardin.

Ron surrounded by lupine in his own prairie. Photo by Michelle Phillips for the Middleton-Cross Plains Newspaper.

Ron’s interest in seeds began with prairie and oak savanna restoration on his own property. Then it blossomed—no pun intended—with his volunteer work through Dane County Parks and other conservation groups. Although he’s also done chainsaw work, invasive species removal, and many prescribed burns, nothing matched his favorite restoration activity. “When it came to seed collecting and processing,” Ron says, “I absolutely loved it.”

 

Soon, Ron was not only harvesting seed, but learning how to dry and process it so it could be stored and planted. He quickly outgrew the hand-processing operation he had set up in his garage and began partnering with Dane County Parks to utilize the equipment and storage at their seed warehouse.

Volunteer groups are wonderful at harvesting seeds that grow in vast patches and are ripe for picking all at once. Ron, though, specializes at driving all over to hunt down species that are harder to find, or species that ripen over a period of time, so he can revisit an area and only harvest the seeds that are ready to go. That can take Ron to rocky goat prairies, wetlands, dense woodlands, or wherever he has access and permission to harvest.

“When I donate seed and it is planted and flourishes, I am often given access to the location to harvest seeds and help other organizations,” Ron notes. “The number of acres I have access to grows every year.”

He typically harvests more than 150 species each season. And that’s not the only impressive number: the combined seed collected by Ron and Dane County last year totaled over 1,200 pounds of pure seed, representing over 220 species, which is a value of roughly $1.3 million.

The harvest season starts for Ron when the spring ephemerals, such as Dutchman’s breeches and bloodroot, set seed in May, and ends when the last asters and goldenrods are finished in November. At the height of the season, Ron works seven days a week.

 

Where do all these seeds go? If you live or recreate in southern Wisconsin, you’ve probably been to a property that’s received a seed donation. A total of 73 towns, cities, state park friends’ groups, land trusts, and conservation organizations have gotten seeds from Ron, many more than once.

“Since 2010, Ron has provided seeds for many properties along the Ice Age Trail, including many Alliance-owned lands such as our Swamplovers Preserve,” says Kevin Thusius, Director of Conservation at the Ice Age Trail Alliance. “His dedication to and knowledge of the plants is both staggering and inspiring. For this, generations of Ice Age Trail users will enjoy the fruits of Ron’s labor.”

Groundswell Conservancy is another grateful recipient. “Last year Ron donated 25 acres worth of seed that we planted last fall at Patrick Marsh,” says Conservationist BJ Byers. “We recruited the help of volunteers as well as Patrick Marsh Middle School students and their teachers to plant the prairie. We had around 300 middle school students walk transects

throughout a grid system while hand broadcasting the seed from paper bags.  It was a great day for conservation that couldn't have been accomplished without the help of Ron and so many others.”

 

 

Amy Alstad, Director of Land Management & Environmental Education at Holy Wisdom Monastery, agrees. “Ron is a gem! He has been a hugely important force in advancing restoration work at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton since at least 2014. In that time, he’s donated the majority of the seeds used to plant 27 acres of prairie and 8 acres of woodland/savanna. He continues to donate seeds of rare or specialist species to add into our mature restorations to keep diversity high. It isn’t at all a stretch to say that our restoration efforts wouldn’t be nearly what they are today without the seeds (not to mention the energy, support, and knowledge) that Ron has generously provided.”

Ron’s seeds have also found homes in Iowa, Illinois, Milwaukee, and Madison. But “the Driftless is the prime area,” Ron says.
 

 

DALC has benefitted many times over from Ron’s generosity. In 2018, Ron donated 62 pounds of prairie seeds worth $28,000 to plant at Erickson Conservation Area. In 2019, he gave another 14 pounds for Erickson and Morrison Preserve, worth almost $4,000. And in 2021, he donated another 42 pounds to Erickson, 40 pounds to Sardeson Preserve, and 14 pounds to the Spring Valley Tract – a total value of over $51,000.

These seeds represent nearly a hundred species, many of which are too expensive to buy commercially, and sometimes, not available at all. But they are vital to creating the right habitat to support native pollinators, birds, and animals, as well as restoring historic ecosystem processes like absorbing water and carrying fire.

Next time you walk one of our preserves, stop to admire the bountiful native species growing in their historic homes. Try to imagine the countless other acres across the Driftless that are also bursting with a diversity of life, thanks to Ron.

And that number is going to keep growing. Ron doesn’t want to quit.

“How can I stop?” he asks. “If I put in the work, I can do something unique that makes a difference.”
 

A question for Ron:What is your favorite part of the Driftless Area?

"When I turn into my driveway I can truthfully say, "The Glacier Stopped Here". My 21-acre property, which has a view of Blue Mounds, is on the edge of the terminal moraine. It has an upland dry, sandy area, rich prairie with North and South facing slopes, a seep that runs year round, a savanna and some full woodlands. To me this diversity defines the Driftless Area and I love living here".