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Talking About the History of Native Seed Production with PRI’s Mike Evenocheck

Editor’s note: Being able to have ready access to local origin, historically accurate species for use in our restoration projects is central to Prairie Restoration’s mission and philosophy.  In this post our Director of Sales and Marketing, Mike Evenocheck, gives us a bit of the back story on PRI seed production.

 

Interviewer:  Can we talk about the way that Prairie Restorations works in producing native seeds? Why don’t you share a little bit of the history of Prairie Restorations and how seed production began.  Perhaps you could share the history about PRI growing and harvesting seeds.

Mike: Back when the business started over 40 years ago, there weren’t any materials in the marketplace for native landscape restoration. You couldn’t go out and buy something like little bluestem seed to do a restoration. It simply didn’t exist. There were varietals around – the government was producing certain ones back then but nothing native and certainly nothing here in Minnesota.

It’s extremely important to know the source, or native origin, for seed you are going to use on a restoration. Using local origin seed leads to a more historically accurate restoration and, of course, a more successful one.  Ron Bowen – the founder, owner and company president – knew he had to produce these materials himself. He started creating plots on property he purchased in Princeton, Minnesota using seed collected from verified remnant populations. These plots included both grass and flower species.

And so over the years those plots built up. It’s a slow wheel that turns when you are trying to create a seed production plot. You have to harvest the seed, clean the seed, sow it, and then you have to let it grow and mature.  Unlike corn or soybeans, it can take 3-4 years before you can actually harvest seed.  Some the seed is then used to expand the plot.  You definitely have to be patient when it comes to this process.

But over the years, Ron acquired more acreage and he planted more plots. These first plots were essential to providing the necessary materials for the company’s first restoration projects.  And many of those plots are still being used today.

Over the years the diversity of our plots has increased – I believe we have over 15 species of grasses and 75 species of flowers growing in plots on the farm. Along with seed production, Ron also began producing plants. Greenhouses were built and plants were grown for projects.  Using plants was a great way to include additional species in project without having to “wait” for or rely on seed production.  Having more species, or diversity, in a restoration provides more interest, habitat and makes for a more resilient project.  Today, three of our seven locations are involved in seed and plant production.  With hard work and diligence, PRI produces well over 30,000 lbs of native seed and 300,000 native plants on an annual basis.

Interviewer: Can you walk us through what happens when the plots are ready for harvesting? When do you collect seed, and then what happens to it?

Mike: Collection of seeds from those species happens throughout the year, depending on when they bloom and when they’re ripe. But the vast majority of collection happens in September. We’re moving into harvesting right now. There’s a lot of hand collection, especially with the flower plots. A lot of the larger grass plots are harvested using custom gleaner-combines which really helps with efficiency.

Our ‘Old Gleaner’ hard at work combining (harvesting) big bluestem

Then once the seed is collected, it is dried. If you leave it in a big pile while it is still damp, the seed will heat up through a natural fermenting process and likely die. So it is very important to make sure the seed is dry. Once it’s dry you can begin the cleaning process, which usually goes on throughout the winter months.

The cleaning process basically gets rid of all the stems, chaff, weed seed and non-viable seed components. Ultimately, the goal is end up with a pile of pure seed. Then that end product is sent to an independent lab to test for viability. The documented test results are then use to produce labels that are associated with that seed lot.  The seed is the bagged and stored in our climate controlled warehouse where it will be ready for use on our native landscape restoration projects or for selling to the public during the next growing season. 

 

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