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At Alaska's only seed-cleaning facility, things are really shakin'

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: February 28, 2017
  • Published February 26, 2017

PALMER — Things are really shaking at Alaska's Plant Materials Center, with a record amount of seeds being sorted every day at the Palmer facility.

The center, Alaska's lone seed-sorting facility, has been inundated with seeds this year. Facility Manager Rob Carter said over 177,000 pounds of seed have been brought to the facility since they first started accepting seeds in early October.

Carter said that's a record, and almost double what they received last year.

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That's meant doubling up on shifts for workers who sort the thousands of pounds of seeds through giant seed cleaners each day in order to ensure Alaska farmers and construction workers have the clean seed they need for projects. The giant seed sorters — Clipper Eclipses roughly the size of two pickup trucks stacked on top of each other — sort through the raw seed material in order to remove debris like dirt, bugs and weed seeds.

Carter said this year they've received everything from barley and grass seed to seeds that fall outside of traditional agriculture, like wild beach grasses from the Aleutian Islands and fireweed seeds sorted for local tourism companies.

The goal of the seed-cleaning operation is to create state-certified seeds free of contaminants. The seeds go all over the state, to farmers looking to start new grain crops or to Department of Transportation road construction projects for re-vegetation efforts.

The Palmer facility is one of only a few state-run plant materials centers around the country; most others are funded through the National Resource Conservation Service. Carter said being separate from the NRCS allows the Alaska plant materials center to do more state-focused research than their federally funded peers.

Rob Carter, program manager for the Plant Materials Center, shows a one-ton bin of wheatgrass seed in the center’s storage area. The state’s Plant Materials Center supports Alaska’s agricultural industry, in part, by selling seeds and offering a seed cleaning service. Photographed on February 14, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Along with seed sorting, the facility is home to the state's plant pathology lab — which tests plants for disease — a seed laboratory, and Alaska's potato production and disease monitoring program. That program cultivates almost 300 different types of seed potatoes through in vitro plant propagation. The potatoes are all kept in sterile test tubes at the facility and used to create disease-free seed potatoes for the Alaska agriculture community.

Carter said having a plant materials center creates a chain of custody on the seeds and allows for oversight to make sure that people ordering the seeds are actually getting the right type of plant, free of invasive species or mixed crops.

He said some growers send over 7,000 pounds of grass or grain seed to be cleaned. Some will send as little as half a pound.

Farmers pay the facility to clean the seeds by the hour. According to a 2015 annual report from the facility, the program brought in just over $27,000 in revenue that year. The farmers then take the seeds and sell them to other growers, or to contractors using them for re-vegetation projects.

Carter said if all seeds were imported from out of state it would mean a higher risk of weed species getting into Alaska environments. That could have a dramatic impact on the Alaska landscape, according to Steve Seefeldt, state horticulture specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Extension.

"If we didn't have any cleaning facilities at all, roadsides would be littered with all kinds of invasive plants," Seefeldt said. "It would be awful for our ecosystem."

Snowmelt drips off the roof of a farm equipment shelter at the state’s Plant Materials Center on February 14, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Summer seed boom

Carter thinks the reason they're seeing such a huge increase in seeds this winter is due to outreach from the Plant Materials Center to farmers. He said they had farmers who had never brought seeds to the facility dropping off seeds for the first time this year.

Others say it's partly the result of 2016's good summer for growing grain and grass seeds around the state.

Phil Kaspari, agriculture agent for UAF cooperative extension in Delta Junction, said warm weather and just the right amount of precipitation helped growers in the Interior, where much of the seed is coming from.

Mike Schultz, who runs Schultz Farms outside of Delta Junction with his brother, Scott, said his farm's yield was up this year. Schultz said they grow mostly barley on their 6,000 acres, but this year decided to let a crop of brome hay mature into seeds instead of harvesting it. Decisions like that led to an overall increase in the amount of seeds he sent to the Palmer facility.

Plant Materials Center agronomist Lubo Mahlev displays some of the seeds he has analyzed in his laboratory. The state’s Plant Materials Center supports Alaska’s agricultural industry, in part, by selling seeds and offering a seed cleaning service. Photographed on February 14, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

He said in the absence of the seed-cleaning facility, it's possible that a small cooperative could form, but considering the lack of seed growers in the state — there are only about eight in the Interior — it would probably be a difficult thing for private industry to take over.

Breweries and distilleries have also been looking to get into Alaska grain, according to Stu Davies, owner of Davies Farms located outside of North Pole, which he suspects could be leading to an increase in total poundage. Davies said more craft distillers are looking for local grains, including new rye barley crops.

"Most of the brewers aren't using Alaska-grown products, but they are shipping malt barley in from, like, Belgium and paying a premium price," he said. "But craft distilling is coming on, and some of the growers have sent seed."

Carter said he expects a little more seed to be delivered before the spring planting season begins. He said they hope to be done by May 1, but that given the extraordinary amount of seeds at the facility, it might be longer.

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