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NEED FOR SEEDS IS FERTILE GROUND FOR NEW BUSINESS

On a typical fall day, Gretchen and Richard Lang don their waders and head out for the wetlands around their Royalton home.

Hiking through muck, muskrats and mosquitoes, the Langs keep a keen eye on their target -- the ripe seeds of wetland plants.

"Ten years ago my husband was selling commercial farm seeds to a buyer in Meadville, Pa.," Mrs. Lang said. "The buyer told him that there was a market for seeds from wetland areas, and suggested that Richard and I consider harvesting seeds as a side business."

Richard Lang, now a conservation officer with the Department of Environmental Conservation, saw a natural connection between the interest in wetland seeds, and their 70-plus acres of land in Royalton.

"The demand for seeds from wetland vegetation has been fueled by the government," said Richard Sweeney, deputy permit administrator for the Department of Environmental Conservation's division of environmental permits.

"There are a series of federal and state laws and regulations that protect wetlands," Sweeney said. "In the late 1970s, New York state passed the Freshwater Wetlands Act. The intent of the regulation is preserve and protect the public benefit of wetlands."

Sweeney reviews permit applications from a six-county area of New York state.

"Developers, towns and utilities are the primary applicants," Sweeney said. "The application process includes an assessment of the need for wetland restoration. In some cases, when restoration is significant, a qualified biologist must complete a wetland inventory to ensure that the disturbed area is returned to its natural state."

That's where the Langs come in.

To return an area to its natural state, it must be replanted with the same kinds of plants that were removed by the developer or utility.

Seeds for some native species may be hard to get, or impossible to get, if it weren't for their collections.

In 1993 the Langs set aside 15 acres of their land to develop as wetlands and uplands, land uphill from a wetland; a fertile incubator for seeds from over 50 varieties of plants.

"My brother is a biologist. When we first started, he hiked with us and taught us how to identify different plants," Mrs. Lang said. "Water plantain, nettles, milkweed and joe-pye weed are just a few of the plants we select for seeds."

But identifying a full-size plant is different from identifying tiny seeds.

"Some of the seeds are like dust," Mrs. Lang said. "I often have to look at the seed heads under a microscope in order to identify them correctly."

"When we first started I had one book to help me identify plants and seeds. Now I have a reference library full of books. I have a thirst for knowledge," Mrs. Lang said. "Each year I try to identify more and more plants."

While protection of their lush wetland bounty is guarded by the Langs, harvest is dictated by Mother Nature.

"You have to be out there when the seeds are ready," Mrs. Lang said. "We harvest seeds continuously depending upon what is ripe at any given time."

The harvest process includes picking, drying, identifying and labeling each variety of seed.

"You have to be willing to be in cold water, and you can't be afraid of snakes," Mrs. Lang said. "My husband tends to the plants in deep water, because he has longer arms than I do."

While the monetary rewards of their business are small, the Langs appreciate the opportunity to be outdoors. "'It's a fun job," Mrs. Lang said. "I'm a farm girl at heart. I love being outdoors."