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As summer winds down and the telltale signs of autumn emerge in the Fox Valley, the Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory - in keeping with a fall tradition - is offering area residents a chance to join in the Laboratory's annual Prairie Seed Harvest, scheduled for two upcoming Saturdays, September 28 and November 2.

Fermilab Prairie Project organizers teach volunteers to recognize particular plants and then clip the ripe flower heads for seeds. Fermilab uses the seeds to enrich newer prairie tracts at Fermilab and to share with other prairie restoration projects. Although a mechanical harvest is also done, the public harvest is vital for grassland growth. "With mechanical harvesting, prairie keepers can't get as many of the specialized plants as when the volunteers go out," said Bob Lootens, lead grounds- keeper.

"The seed is used to enrich young prairie and help build diversity into the grasslands," Lootens added.

The fall event is becoming increasingly popular, with about 180 people participating last year, including many families and school classes.

Prairies, or native American grasslands, are thriving communities rich with plant and animal life, all interrelating in a complex ecosystem. Tallgrass prairies once blanketed northern Illinois, "The Prairie State." However, during the area's settlement in the 19th century, agriculture consumed all but a tiny remnant of the native grasslands.

Fermilab, the nation's premier high-energy physics laboratory, has a longstanding dedication to restoring the prairie, working for more than 20 years to revive the historical grasslands on its Batavia site. More than 1,000 acres of tallgrass prairie are in various stages of reconstruction, thanks in part to the effort of volunteers who have participated in past seed harvests.

This year's harvest will take place on Saturday, September 28 and Saturday, November 2, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Volunteers are welcome to spend as much or as little time as they wish, and refreshments will be provided.

Persons interested in participating should wear field clothing and gloves, and are encouraged to bring pruning shears and paper grocery bags, if possible. On-site directional signs will direct volunteers to harvest sites.

In case of bad weather on the scheduled dates, please call the Fermilab switchboard at 630-840-3000 to see if the harvest is canceled.

For more information, call the Fermilab Public Affairs Office at 630-840-3351.

Workdays with Kane County Forest Preserve District

Additional opportunities for participating in harvesting activities are available through the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

These workdays are hosted by the volunteer stewards and the Forest Preserve staff. Participants learn special techniques related to restoration work and enjoy a tour of the site. New volunteers are especialy encouraged and welcome to these workdays.

September 29, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Elburn Woods, 45W061 Route 38, Maple Park. Woodland seed harvesting is fun for the whole family. Learn how the seeds will be used for District natural areas restoration projectss.

November 17, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tekakwitha Woods Barn, 35W076 Villa Maria Road, St. Charles. Harvest Fest! Join this final seed processing and mixing day. Come for a few hours, or spend the day! Food and music add to the celebration of harvesting and preparing the mixes for distribution to the various woodland restoration projects.

Weekly seed harvest outings are also coordinated by Grace Koehler, Volunteer Coordinator. District staff lead outings will be held at different preserves on Wednesdays at 10 am. and Fridays at 1 p.m. Locations vary each week. Call Grace at 847-741-9798 to have your name put on a call list for locations the Tuesday prior to the outing day you want to participate. Harvesting begins September 25.