Sea oats: Possible tobacco crop substitute

Vacationers heading for North Carolina’s southern coast this year may find the beaches a bit more substantial, thanks to projects undertaken by a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent.

Work by David Nash, of Brunswick County, is not only helping his area’s beach dunes stay put, but might provide an alternative crop — sea oats — to struggling tobacco farmers.

"The beach is a public trust. And since it doesn’t look like anyone is about to retreat, the only right thing to do is preserve," says Nash, who is pursuing his doctorate in North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Nash recently received a national Best of the Coast award from Coastal Living magazine for his ongoing dune revegetation work along North Carolina’s coast.

After determining through research that indigenous sea oats had a better survival chance than other strains, Nash introduced the float system for cultivating local sea oat seeds. The system, based on tobacco germination techniques, involves growing seedlings on floating greenhouse beds.

He’s introducing the technique to farmers, both to provide alternative income and to end North Carolina’s dependence on sea oats grown outside the state.

"The ones we were buying from Florida were costly and weren’t doing well in this environment," he says.

In addition to setting up such educational efforts as the Master Dune Conservation Program, in which volunteers learn to care for and revegetate dunes, Nash also educates area elementary and middle-school students during field trips to Brunswick County’s coast.

"Adults and children enjoy learning how to protect this great recreational resource," Nash says. "Many volunteer to help replant the dunes."

Sea oats — named for their large oat-like summer plumes — colonize dunes’ seaward sides from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico. Flowering in their second or third year to produce wind-dispersed, sesame-sized seeds, they spread laterally several feet a year, providing in three seasons a dense cover that modifies the harsh beach environment, pioneering the way for other plants and animals.

Once widely used, then out of favor due to high costs and difficulties in finding quantities needed for restoration and stabilization, sea oats apparently are enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to Nash’s work.

"Only four or five plants do well on the frontal dunes, and we’re growing three of them: sea oats, American beach grass and bitter panicum," he notes.

"Dunes exist only because of vegetation like sea oats and beach grass," Nash says. "Once established, sea oats resist erosion well, actually catching blowing sand and building the dune, although waves can wash the soil out from under them. They’re unique because the more sand that accumulates around them, the better they like it, so they grow as the dune grows.

"The best dune protection is a natural mix of plants," he says. The low areas between dunes, called the slack, fills in naturally with plants such as gallardia, camphor weed, horseweed, Russion thistle, pennywort, smilax, trailing wild beans and seaside goldenrod.

"We’ve even planted sandspurs to keep people off the dunes," he says.

Nash and his helpers aren’t just tossing seeds into the wind. They are key players in two massive beach-related undertakings: the Oak Island Sea Turtle Habitat Restoration Project and the Wilmington Harbor Channel Realignment Project.

The Sea Turtle project involves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Congressional approval, $10 million in local and federal funds and a mammoth dredge that is pumping 1.5 million cubic yards of sand from an Intra-coastal Waterway site along four miles of pipe to the beach.

To meet the need for plantings, town employees and volunteers harvested sea oat seed heads growing on government property then had them professionally cleaned to extract seeds. Two part-time Oak Island employees nourish the trays of 80,000 seedlings in two greenhouses.

"Those seedlings would have cost the town about 50 cents each, or $40,000," Nash says.

"The goal is to produce about 150,000 plants. We can do that in two plantings this year, about 12 weeks from seed to dune," he adds.

Nash also intends to "turn" the greenhouse three times this year, to produce a total of about 240,000 plants needed to stabilize dunes built from sand provided by the Wilmington Harbor Channel Realignment Project.

That project will dump 5.5 million cubic yards of beach-quality sand on Bald Head Island, Holden Beach and the tow of Oak Island, which includes the former Caswell, Yaupon and Long beaches.

"They usually dump such dredge sand offshore as required for the lowest cost of disposal, but the cheapest way in this case is to place the sand on the beach at Bald Head Island and the eastern end of Oak Island," Nash says. Oak Island and Holden are paying to have some of the sand pumped the additional distance to their beaches, he says.

Despite the efforts of Nash and others dedicated to stabilizing the coast, it must sometimes seem as if even nature plots against revegetating a dune. All along the Carolina shore, seasonal squalls swirl ghostly sand sheets north or west across narrow, hard-surfaced roads to the same shifting, anonymous fate that awaits any unanchored beach. And hurricanes can finish the beach-removal job dramatically.

Native Tar Heels might recall that Long Beach was completely over-swept by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, with nothing left in most locations but a few bits of plumbing pipe projecting from flat, white sand. More recently, Hurricane Floyd ripped up so much Brunswick County coast that it took six weeks’ labor to plant 50,000 beach grass sprigs along a nine-mile stretch of devastated beach.

Ken Grisset, a Brunswick County tobacco farmer who tried growing sea oats, says he could raise thousands of plants if hurricanes would stop tearing up his greenhouse.

Nash remains optimistic.

"After a storm goes through, it’s obvious that while vegetated dune might be a temporary barrier, it still might be the barrier that saves your house," he says.

And he’s not dreaming alone. Local growers Steve Mercer and Jason Simmons should produce a combined half-million plants this year, Nash says.

"I’m confident there will be more producers as this goes along," he says. "People are coming down from Dare and Currituck counties to see what we’re doing, and we have requests from South Carolina. That was the whole idea — to have our farmers grow plants that would be used in-state.

Adds Nash, "It’s nice to finally see some fruits from five years’ labor."

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