Prairie-seed harvest in full swing
SPRING GROVE — Though his company grows plants known for withstanding heat and lack of rain, Mark Udstuen has suffered through a tough year because of this summer's weather.
"The drought, it hurt the prairie industry as well," said Udstuen, one of the owners and sales managers at Shooting Star Native Seeds outside Spring Grove. While native prairie plants evolved deep root systems to tolerate heat and drought, "it was too hot for too long to be a good year for seed production," he said. "Overall, it was not a great growing season."
Still, it could have been worse, he said. Other places had less rain, so he's happy to at least get a decent crop of big and little bluestem, showy tick trefoil and other native plants. The company also has a farm near Blue Earth that grows mostly prairie flowers, he said.
Harvest on the 1,000 acres began around the Fourth of July with prairie spiderwort and porcupine grass and will go well into October with little bluestem and goldenrod, he said. Again, that's because of the nature of prairie.
Plants there begin to bloom in spring and continue with some blooming into September or even October. That means their seeds also need to be harvested throughout the three months, Udstuen said.
"We are right in the thick of it (the harvest) right now."
Many species, such as the distinctive big bluestem, can be harvested with combines or other machines, he said. But a few species need to be done by hand, which is a long, laborious process, he said. They might collect 100 pounds of material, but once other plant matter is removed, they might end up with only 10 pounds of seeds, he said.
About 80 percent of Shooting Star's seeds are sold wholesale to groups such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation or soil and water conservation districts that plant native prairie because it's often less expensive to maintain than cool-weather plants such as Kentucky bluegrass.
Shooting Star sells seeds from about 300 species throughout the Midwest, Udstuen said. His land has different habitats, such as wetter and drier areas, so it can grow seeds accustomed to those conditions, he said.
Even with a poor economy, "I think the demand has been growing the last few years," he said.