From the April 2021 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine
Bill Neiman’s Native American Seed Farm in the Texas Hill Country is on a mission to help people restore the earth.
Mid-September, half a year before Texas wildflower season starts, and it’s been terribly dry and horribly hot at the Native American Seed Farm northeast of Junction. The rains of spring and summer pretty much quit back in June. This morning, in the dark, Bill Neiman has a meeting with his workers. It’s time to irrigate the grasses from the river. They can’t wait for rain if they want to have seeds to harvest.
Seeds were the reason Neiman — a lean, wiry character in a long-sleeve white shirt, jeans, and work boots — greets me like an old friend. I’ve sought him out and kind of know what to expect from the quick-witted, impatient guru of native seed.
Neiman’s Native American Seed Farm is located in that sweet spot out on the western wider-open fringe of the Texas Hill Country as it transitions into the rocky scrub of the Edwards Plateau and ultimately becomes the Chihuahua Desert. Some of the farm’s 20 employees are hoeing weeds out of its 63 acres of rich, fluffy river-bottom soil nudged up against the Llano River, the blue-green ribbon flowing north toward Mason that marks the southern border of the farm and provides its sustenance. Others are entering species, location, and other data specific to the big sacks of seed — mostly late-seeding native grasses culminating with big bluestem, which seeds in November — coming in from other farms and ranches across the state that the company contracts with.
I live about 125 miles from here in the Austin area. Five years ago, my homeowners association voted to spend several hundred dollars on native wildflower seed. Budget-minded members asked if due diligence had been done. Wasn’t there cheaper seed? Defenders of the idea spoke about the benefits of native wildflowers and the greater likelihood of colorful displays.
The HOA sprang for it and never made a better decision. The shows the past two springs along our streets have been like none in my 26 years of living there. It wasn’t just the old dependables like bluebonnets, Indian blanket, Indian paintbrush, and yellow composites, but arrays of new color bearers including big stalks of gayfeather and teeny-tiny mountain pinks and baby blue eyes and thickets of basketflower and lemon mint that persisted into July.
I wanted to know where this natural bounty came from, which led me to Native American Seed Farm in Junction, and to Bill Neiman.
“Our mission is to help people restore the earth,” Neiman explains on the porch of the farm’s hacienda. Back in the 1970s, he had a successful landscaping and nursery business in Flower Mound, Texas, a booming suburb northwest of DFW International Airport. His venture almost folded in the summer heat wave of 1980, when 69 days of 100-plus-degree heat and zero inches of rain were recorded.
“I was installing these really hyped-up intricate landscapes of Asian jasmine, Chinese holly, Indian hawthorn, Pakistani crepe myrtle, Caribbean St. Augustine,” he says, flashing a sneaky conspiratorial grin that reminds me of the comedian Jim Carrey. “All of my work was burning up. I was also seeing things blooming during those days without rain, over 100 degree temps. I realized those things were natives.
“That’s when a string of lights started coming on. These alien plants aren’t recognized by the native animals, birds, and insects. The vegetation itself, along with water, is habitat — food, shelter, everything. I came to the conclusion that I was part of the problem.”
His nursery and landscape business began advocating for restoring prairie and its native plants. Once part of a vast ecosystem that defined much of the North American landscape before significant numbers of humans arrived in the 19th century, prairie has all but disappeared from Texas. Less than 1 percent of the blackland prairie that once dominated the middle part of the state remains. It’s the same throughout the West.
Neiman began working with corporate clients to plan development before land was cleared and precious remaining prairie destroyed. He forged partnerships with The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks & Wildlife and was instrumental in identifying and saving prairie in North Texas, notably Clymer Meadow Preserve and Parkhill near McKinney. Looking back on those early efforts, he takes pride in his role in the creation of the Prairie Commons model of responsible development in Flower Mound.
Eventually his nursery shifted to native plants exclusively, first in North Texas, and in the unlikeliest of locations: smack dab in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. “My job,” Neiman says, “wasn’t to clean up behind the bulldozers, but to get in front of them and start working with this [native] stuff before it’s all gone, and get it back in other people’s hands.”
Neiman ultimately quit the nursery business to focus on seed and start Native American Seed Farm. “It’s all about seeds,” he says. “I can plant a 40-acre field with native seed that I can get into the back of my pickup. Your diversity, your DNA, all the genetic information, everything a plant needs is tied up in those seeds. It’s not in those pots at the nursery.”
When I moved from the city out into the hills in 1993, I got a personal crash course in the value of natives. Faced with an acre of lawn to keep manicured to HOA standards, I decided there had to be a better way than what I’d done during my years in suburbia. I consulted with ag extension agents and range-management academics at Texas A&M and read up on Allan Savory and holistic ranching. A couple who ranched south of Waxahachie showed me how quail thrived in fields of native grasses but did not in fields of King Ranch hybrid, which is often introduced to create ground cover. I learned that what I’d previously considered to be weeds were actually beneficial natives. Milkweed, in several iterations, has become a thing of beauty to me, especially when monarch butterflies are passing through.
I could see the difference with my own eyes: Natives survive and thrive. Imports might be fun to look at, but they don’t belong in this landscape any more than polar bears do.
These days, my yard isn’t mowed until everything’s bloomed. Screw the HOA.
Bill Neiman initially established Native American Seed Farm on the rural fringes of DFW in Argyle but moved from North Texas to the Hill Country farm near Junction in 1995. But no matter how far out from the urban centers he goes, it seems like encroachment is impossible to outrun. Development has been gobbling up the Neimans’ prime seed-harvesting prairie sites in Central Texas along the east side of the Interstate 35 corridor. “That ain’t country anymore,” he says. “It’s all fragmented into 20-acre ranchettes with emus and horses and llamas and swimming pools. The prairie’s all gone. There’s no bluebonnets left out there.”
The Junction location has land, good soil, plenty of water (typically), and is far from urban development. Bill; his wife, Jan — they met in a garden; and their daughter, Emily, and son-in-law, George Cates, oversee a sprawling operation that extends well beyond the growing fields. There are seed-cleaning, packing, and processing facilities; rows of harvesters and other farm machinery maintained and ready for on-the-road harvests; packaging lines; the business office; and the mail-order station, where orders are filled and shipped to customers, including nurseries all over the state and beyond (the many species of native seeds he harvests are especially suited to Texas and the other Gulf Coast states), individuals, and neighborhood associations like mine.
“We’ve got over 50 species, including some that no one else on earth is growing, like Texas cup grass,” Neiman says. “It’s like an ice cream grass to Texas wildlife. We’ve got another place we lease up the river, and [there’s] also Have Combine, Will Travel. That’s how Native American Seed started: I used to drive around, looking for harvest sites. I got a pilot’s license so I could get above it, look over these hills, scouting from the air.”
If Neiman spots significant wildflower color, he’ll note coordinates and try to track down the landowner, which isn’t as easy as it used to be. “Most land is locked up, or nobody lives there,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t cold-call much anymore. “People used to live out there. There’s a whole bunch of this that’s not there anymore.” By “this” Neiman is referring to land that people live on and steward. “But what’s even worse,” he says, “is the darned habitat ain’t there anymore either.”
It’s that kind of homespun straight talk that makes Neiman’s philosophy easy to embrace. When he talks about native grasses, wildflowers, habitat, prairie, and ecosystems, you’re keen to get on board with his mission to restore the land to its natural state. You might find yourself digesting the several books’ worth of wisdom he’s dispensed in Native American Seed’s twice-a-year seed catalogs, Responsible Beauty and EcoLogical Solutions, which include essays like “What Is a Native?,” “Invasive Plants,” “How to Grow Native Seeds,” “Healing Sore Lands and Sacred Headwaters,” and other related topics written in Neiman’s knowledgeable voice, peppered with folksy turns of phrase like “Put it back like it was” and “It goes two or three grandmas back.” And you’ll likely find yourself appreciating the messages discreetly printed on seed packages: “Touch the earth and quietly listen” and “150 years ago only native plants grew here.”
Back at the patio table outside the hacienda, Neiman is fidgeting in his chair again. Enough of this talk. There’s work to be finished and more long-term planning for next spring, including the looming challenge of finding fields of Indian paintbrush large enough to collect seed from. The signature red-orange wildflower of the Texas prairie, the one known as prairie-fire, is vanishing, like the prairie that spawned it.
And Bill Neiman isn’t about to let that happen.
Book a group tour or make overnight accommodations at the farm’s spacious hacienda ($300 – $400 a night) or at one of two multi-bedroom cabins ($200 – $280 a night) by calling 866.417.4837. For more information on Native American Seed Farm, visit seedsource.com.