Lessons from Heather McCargo, Founder of Wild Seed Project
By Tripti Thomas-Travers, October 2023.
All microhabitat programs must ensure that their participants have access to native plants, preferably of local genotype. But the availability of these plants, and the seeds to propagate them, may be very limited because the careful gathering, processing and propagation of local seed (and the distribution of the propagated plants) is not always commercially viable. Microhabitat programs may then undertake this work themselves, by engaging volunteers.
Village and Wilderness connected with Heather McCargo, the founder of Wild Seed Project, a noted seed stewardship and distribution organization, to gather her wisdom on fostering a volunteer cadre for seed work. What we learned is that seed work lends itself very well to volunteers, and that with thoughtful management (for which McCargo gave us some detailed tips below), a lot can be achieved with a relatively small number of reliable people.
Access to native plants is foundational for successful microhabitat programs. Our exploratory research of programs reveals that such native plant availability is often made possible only by the intensive involvement of volunteers, who help collect, process and propagate native seeds for non-commercial entities, including sometimes, the microhabitat programs themselves. This is particularly the case in areas where seed of local genotype is not commercially available because the gathering and processing of ecotypic native seed is not commercially viable.
For this case study, we spoke with Heather McCargo, the founder and (recently-retired) former executive director of Wild Seed Project. We aimed to tap her wisdom on recruiting, training and sustaining an effective cadre of volunteers in native seed work.
Wild Seed Project is a nonprofit based in South Yarmouth, Maine. Founded by McCargo in 2014, the organization is focused on putting responsibly-harvested native seeds and the knowledge of native plant cultivation into the hands of all. It aims to expand access beyond the traditional realm of experts and large-scale restoration work, so that anyone, at any scale, can participate in climate adaptation and the restoration of biodiversity.
Over the years, Wild Seed Project has developed many educational and applied-ecology offerings in addition to its seed stewardship work. It is, perhaps, most popularly known as a source of northeastern native seeds, which are sold via the Wild Seed Project (WSP) website. WSP also undertakes seed giveaways to teachers, schools, libraries, indigenous tribes and underserved populations. ”We really try to use the income from the seeds, as a non-profit, to make them available to all the different people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access this natural resource,” says McCargo. The website features some 90 species of seed for sale every year, and in 2022 alone, the organization distributed and sold over 23,000 seed packets. Beyond its online inventory, WSP also serves as a source for hard-to-find seeds that may be needed for specialized projects. Enabling this work is a robust seed collection and processing program largely powered by a small group of volunteers who achieve impressive impact, given the quantity of seed that WSP (an organization of 10 staff members) is able to distribute.
Our first question to McCargo was, why tap volunteers at all? Answered McCargo, “I knew from the start that the work of collecting, cleaning, harvesting and handling all the seeds was going to take a lot of hands. It is a huge amount of work. Just like the clearing of invasives, there is simply not enough time and money in the world to accomplish the task, especially as a small nonprofit. So I knew I would need volunteers.” And essentially, as McCargo, emphasizes, working with seeds is the perfect volunteer job: “The seed piece of the work is fun! It is really engaging work. I have people begging me to get involved in seed cleaning, sorting and packaging. And by getting them involved in this way, you can bring more people, not just professionals, into understanding more about native plants.”
When she first got started, McCargo recruited friends to join her around her kitchen table for what felt like a fun group project. That group has now grown to a long-term, core team of some 6-8 volunteers within a larger group of about 20 volunteers in total, with the original workers all handpicked by McCargo. Staff are trained and involved in the seed work as well.
We asked McCargo for some tips on creating a dedicated volunteer cadre for the task of seed collection, processing, sorting and packaging. The following is a cheat sheet, compiled from McCargo’s advice and observations:
Community and Communication
Overall, McCargo underlines how much volunteers enjoy contributing their time and effort to working with seed: ”Seeds are beautiful! Everyone likes working with seeds. It is joyful work! In fact, here at Wild Seed Project, we actually call it ‘seed therapy,’” she says. In her time building up Wild Seed Project, McCargo has taken a very hands-on approach to all the stages of creating a dedicated volunteer cadre. While this may not always be possible for large-scale operations, smaller organizations can learn valuable lessons about having outsize impact by thoughtfully managing even a small group of volunteers.
Village and Wilderness amplifies the work of community-based innovators by supporting efforts to discover, prove and share replicable climate adaption strategies. Our flagship project is the Microhabitat Program Incubator.
This case study is part of a series of written resource materials that Village and Wilderness is developing to share lessons and best-practices across existing and emerging microhabitat programs.
What is a Microhabitat Program?
Community-based programs designed to convert small patches of land into ecologically useful habitat are emerging everywhere. From rewilding private land, to establishing urban shade gardens, bioswales and pollinator-friendly roadside verges and farmland margins—restoring ecosystem function in the fragmented landscape is the common theme.
While “backyard habitat programs” is a term that has been commonly used to describe many of these efforts, we propose more encompassing terms—such as microhabitat programs. We believe that these programs are part of a broader movement comprising the universe of community-based and individual efforts and to restore ecosystem function and ecological productivity to the fragmented landscape.