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Harvesting Our Minnesota Native Seed Crops

As we approach the official start of fall tomorrow, we’re thinking about harvest. For us, a big part of our work this season is involved with harvesting and processing the various native seed crops we grow. These seeds are available both for purchase in our retail stores, as well as for use in native landscape restoration projects.

Most agricultural crops like corn are annuals that need to be planted every year.  But things are a bit different on our farms. The vast majority of our native seed production plots are perennials, which means that they regrow every year and do not need to be replanted once established. Once we plant them in our fields, we can continue to harvest them if we take proper care of our fields.

These species do tend to grow a bit slower, however, so it usually takes us a few years to get a crop once we plant a field. Some species are long lived and can produce for decades, others are short lived and are only commercially viable for a couple seasons before we must start over again with it.

We often get asked if harvesting native seed requires specialized equipment. It really depends on the scale that we are harvesting at and the species that we are collecting. In smaller plots, we sometimes collect native seed with a simple bucket and scissors or just pluck the seed off with our hands.

In our larger fields we do sometimes use more specialized equipment. We have combines that have been slightly modified to handle our native crops and brush harvesters that collect large amounts of seed in an efficient manner.

In some instances, we have had to think outside the box and develop our own equipment to make collecting seed more efficient in a large scale for certain species if the crop is difficult to collect or grows in a challenging area.

How do we know when native seeds are ready to be harvested?

The production staff at PRI all has pretty good experience with this and knows based on past years when a certain species should be close to being ready to be harvested. As the time draws closer, we monitor the seed very closely and check it multiple times per week.

Flowers and grass will often start to brown down, but what we are really looking for is the seed “nugget”. We break the seed head apart and look for a fully developed seed and see if it is dry or milky. If it is dry, then we harvest the crop. If we are using mechanical methods, we must also consider whether or not the crop will shell off the stem in the combine or brush harvester.

After we’ve harvested seed in the field, it must be dried down, processed, and cleaned. Once the seed has been cleaned, we then have to test the seed for weed seeds, purity and germination according to government standards for legal sale.

In most cases we are busy collecting seed during the brief harvest window during the summer months and have a long Minnesota winter to clean seed indoors, so we generally wait to do these final steps until the weather cools off and seed has all been harvested. In some cases, however, we need to use seed from a current year.

It may take a couple weeks to dry it down, another week to process and clean it, and up to three weeks for the seed test results to come back. We generally budget about a month and a half at the earliest for a small seed lot to reach our shelves in the stores if need be, but most of the time we focus on processing our seed in the winter months.

Something we’re really excited about is that demand for native seed is higher than it’s ever been. The task for us is to keep up with that demand.  We can do this by investing in more plots of certain species, but that can take several years to start to produce viable seed. That means we have to get a feel for what might be in demand in the next few years and take steps to be able to meet the need with our native seed inventory.

What we may do is a combination of starting a new plot and bolstering an existing plot with live plants grown in our greenhouse. We also use modern agronomic practices to help our plants be as healthy as possible and producing as much quality seed as possible. This is an ever-changing industry and we are always learning and continuing to grow!

Even though all across Minnesota the growing season is about over for most crops – including our native species – work doesn’t slow down at our native landscape restoration company, it just changes with the season.  The next few months we will be working on processing the harvested seed, getting it ready for our retail stores, our online catalog, and our 2020 landscape restoration projects!

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