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Need seeds? This reforestation startup is buying its suppliers

One of the better-known reforestation startups, DroneSeed, now operating as part of Mast, is buying one of the biggest seed suppliers in North America.

Seedling with drone in blurred background

Image courtesy of DroneSeed/Mast

With the snowpack in California’s Yosemite Valley last week measuring over 15 feet in some locations, it seems strange to be thinking about wildfire season — and the smoldering need for states across the U.S. Northwest to dramatically scale reforestation efforts. But Seattle-based DroneSeed, now doing business under a newly named parent company called Mast, is doing more than just thinking.

The startup — which 18 months ago raised $36 million in Series A funding from a group of high-profile backers including DBL Partners and the venture firms of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff — uses drones and software to scale reforestation. This week, it acquired one of the largest seedling cultivators in California, Cal Forest Nurseries, along with a smaller organization, Siskiyou Seed. DroneSeed earlier bought seed bank Silvaseed in August 2021. 

The rationale for these investments is straightforward: With all the blazes of the past few U.S. fire seasons — an average of more than 7 million acres annually, compared with 2 million before the 1990s — the need to ramp up seed collection and cultivation has intensified. For perspective, that additional burn area is about the size of my state, New Jersey. What’s more, those fires released many millions of metric tons of CO2: The 2020 fire season alone wiped out an estimated 20 years of greenhouse gas reductions.

Just as concerning: The ferocity of modern-day blazes that burn deeper into the soil has made it more difficult to encourage reforestation. That’s because the delicate seeds normally nestled near the top of the soil are often scorched and fail to germinate as they naturally would in the aftermath of wildfires. 

You can’t reforest without more seeds

Now seems a good time to address the aforementioned identity shift for DroneSeed’s parent company. The term "mast" refers to a natural phenomenon that happens once or twice per decade in which co-located trees produce a massive crop of seed cones. Among other things, Mast aims to use data analytics to identify when and where those mass seed production events are about to happen. That way, more seeds can be collected by forest managers and nurtured in greenhouses, where the growing conditions are optimized by AI. It’s also prioritizing polycultural cultivation, the use of seeds from near a fire-damaged area, and planting efforts that improve a stand of seedlings’ chances of growing to maturity. 

This isn’t about genetic manipulation, it’s about giving Mother Nature a little help in the nursery. "The industry and the supply chain is overwhelmed, so we have to have better tools," said Grant Canary, founder and CEO of Mast.

Both seedlings and the labor needed for reforestation are in high demand. Another climate adaptation startup, Terraformation, launched a $100 million fund last March that is also aimed at building capacity. 

Seedlings in greenhouse

Mast wants to use software to ensure seeds can be collected by forest managers and nurtured in greenhouses, where the growing conditions are optimized by AI. Courtesy of DroneSeed/Mast

Cal Forest Nurseries, self-described as the largest container reforestation nursery in the Pacific Northwest, produces 20 million to 25 million conifer seedlings a year. Canary said the vertical integration of its businesses will enable Mast to handle a larger number of reforestation projects in partnership with government agencies, private landowners, tribal nations and others — both by aerial planting via drone and through hand-planting.

Mast tripled its seed supply through its earlier Silvaseed acquisition, but Canary declined to say how much the Cal Forest buyout would increase seedling availability. Mast cultivates low-density reforestation practices, planting 150 to 200 trees per acre, about half what’s typically planted. "This is better for fire suppression and water absorption, because there is less runoff," Canary told me.

Growing high-quality credits 

What’s the revenue model? Mast issues carbon credits for its reforestation work in collaboration with Climate Action Reserve, its verification partner, to help pay landowners and forest managers. Its first project, started in 2021 and completed in November at a 300-acre site in Henry Creek in western Oregon, resulted in the issue of more than 150,000 credits that helped pay for the regeneration and for the long-term monitoring of the site. The multiple trees of native species at the site, which is legally protected, are projected to remove 50,000 metric tons of CO2 over the next century. It’s worth noting that Shopify, a pioneer in supporting advanced carbon removal approaches, was a big backer of the project.

"Shopify believes in the potential of reforestation to help reverse climate change, but we are also well aware of the issues around transparency, additionality and performance related to forest carbon credits," said Stacy Kauk, head of Shopify’s sustainability strategy, in a March 2022 statement. "DroneSeed is on a path to resolving these critical issues, which is why we’re excited to support their scale-up journey."   

The site was seen as one that might never have been reforested naturally, because of the severity of the fire damage. Indeed, credits for reforestation are still relatively rare, but something that Mast hopes to make more common. 

Mast’s backers are hopeful that the hunger for more high-quality credits on voluntary carbon markets will inspire more confidence in its business model at a time when many corporate buyers are increasingly skeptical of counting credits related to deforestation avoidance projects toward their net-zero goals. "Using carbon credit sales to finance reforestation as an alternative to venture investment is a big win for land owners and proponents of effective reforestation," said Ohanian in a statement. "That innovation in finance combined with supply chain expansion add up to a bright future for Mast that will include more reforestation projects and meeting the market’s growing appetite for meaningful, high-quality carbon removal credits."

It’s my nature to be cynical about tree-planting projects — there isn’t enough space to support all the commitments that have been made. But there’s also no denying the urgent need to adapt to a world in which wildfires are both more frequent and more ferocious. If a little VC money can help grow the supply of seedlings for wildfire reforestation, in my mind, that is money well-spent — regardless of whether it is counted toward a particular comment.

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