MEADVILLE, Pa. – Looking at a field full of common milkweed, Elsie Ernst looked incredulously at her son, Calvin, and asked, “You didn’t really plant those, did you?”
But he had – to establish a stand thick enough that he could harvest the plants’ seed with a combine.
Ernst, 60, is often on the receiving end of good-natured ribbing about planting “weeds,” but what is undesirable to one person is desirable to another, and his northwestern Pennsylvania seed company has grown, well, let’s just say it’s grown like a good weed.
House that vetch built.
In the early 1960s, Ernst and his father, the late Ted Ernst, built their company, Ernst Conservation Seeds, on a foundation of crown vetch. Today, it’s known throughout the Northeast as a source of quality native and naturalized seeds, from perennial grasses and legumes to wildflowers.
Forty full-time employees work at the farm and headquarters, located on the edge of Meadville.
While studying at Penn State, Calvin Ernst learned about crown vetch and convinced his father to start a 5-acre stand. “That plant sort of became my life’s focus,” said Ernst.
Ernst lived and worked at the Penn State greenhouses, earning a bachelor’s degree in ag biosciences – a unique program that matched Ernst’s unique interests. It combined a bit of agronomy, a bit of biology, a bit of horticulture. During college, he also started working on the state’s soil inventory project and after graduating in 1963, he worked full-time to finish the inventory project.
In 1965, the Ernsts were able to harvest their first crown vetch seed crop. “My idea then was that I should get contracts with the big seed companies to sell them all the seed, and let them worry about processing and marketing,” Ernst said.
But the market had other plans and soon the two started direct selling and processing the crown vetch seed. While Calvin worked off the farm in construction, his father developed the farm’s sales with Beachley-Hardy and other major seed companies in the East.
By 1970, the company had grown and Ernst looked West to expand. They bought 640 acres in Nebraska to grow crown vetch for seed. But on the cusp on their expansion, oversupply killed the market and the family reorganized back in Pennsylvania in 1973, selling the Nebraska farm.
Roadsides and reclamation.
Still raising 700 acres of crown vetch in western Pennsylvania, the Ernsts became pioneers in developing techniques to clean, process and market the seed.
The company’s growth paralleled the growth of mineland reclamation, and the Ernsts became experts at what would grow in that barren landscape. The strip mine industry remains a key component in their business.
State departments of transportation stretching from New Hampshire to Virginia turn to Ernst for help in establishing roadside grasses. In April, he was a featured presenter at a national DOT seminar in Florida on the use of native species for roadside beautification and stabilization.
The first native grass species the company grew were Tioga deertongue and shelter switchgrass. Because of a longtime relationship with the mine reclamation industry, Ernst knew there was a great need to find something to grow in the high sulfur/high pH soils. The Tioga deertongue has little forage value, but will grow in that harsh environment. The shelter switchgrass will tolerate similar harsh conditions but offers more forage value for wildlife.
Stream, wetland work.
At the same time in the early 1980s, Ernst planted some hybrid willows and dogwood developed by the USDA for better soil stabilization, particularly along streams. The mining industry and road departments were among the first to do stream relocation and wetland mitigation in the 1980s.
Today, Ernst Conservation Seeds is one of the few sources of soil bioengineering material in the East.
The company also consults on various jobs that require what Calvin Ernst calls “high environmental impact seedings.” Last winter, for example, they worked on a 60-acre landfill reclamation site near the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay.
“Most environmental calamities present opportunities for us,” Ernst admitted.
The company also works on projects to restore habitat for endangered species of plants.
Harvesting 1,800 acres.
The Crawford County company has 1,800 acres in production. About a third of the acreage is on rented ground.
The largest block, 700 acres, is devoted to switchgrass. Another 300 acres are planted to Niagara big bluestem; more than 100 acres contain wild rye, and other large stands grow deertongue and crown vetch.
The company has modified seven conventional combines to harvest the seeds. Some crops they chop as a forage and sort and process the seeds out of that. Harvesting peaks in September, although some crops’ seeds are collected as early as June. Tree seeds, such as sycamore and sumac, can be harvested in January and February.
Elaborate cleaning systems – some separating seed by air, cup, disks or sizing – are used. Most seed gets cleaned two or three times before it leaves the warehouse. “My mechanical ability is as critical as my agronomy skills,” Ernst said.
The company grows more than 200 different native species and uses seed from at least 400 parent plants in the wild. It creates approximately 10 custom mixes a day, in addition to the general seed mixes offered. A 40-page catalog lists the company’s extensive seed products.
“I kept toying with the whole native seed idea,” Calvin Ernst said. “There’s just fewer and fewer of them.”
His ideas mirrored a national trend to re-establish native species and soon Ernst Conservation Seed was at the forefront of native seed production and the company was being asked for more sophisticated mixes.
While there are many native plant growers, Ernst is one of the few native plant seed sources in the Northeast.
They’re not able to grow all wild plants, like domestic sedges, and have to hand collect some tree and shrub seeds in the wild.
Since 1993, the company has also been concentrating on native wildflowers and now grows 150 acres of wildflowers for seed production.
The company has an elaborate computer program that tracks the genetic identity of each species, from the seed to the field and back to the seed bin again, but a lot relies on hand tracking, labeling and identification – right down to a specific row of 25 plants.
The company not only tracks species, but various ecotypes within individual species.
Fertilization is a learn-as-you-go process, Ernst said, because so little is known about many of the native species. The company does a soil analysis of every field, every year, and after analyzing that field’s production, Ernst adjusts its fertility program accordingly.
There is room for more growers of native seeds, said Ernst. He spoke at the Ohio Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in February on native seed production as an alternative crop, trying to interest others in doing what he’s doing.
Currently, the company processes seeds for other growers who hand collect native seeds.
“More regional growers could be more beneficial,” he said. “We’re finding more native species than we can develop.”
More information on Ernst Conservation Seeds is available at 9006 Mercer Pike, Meadville, PA 16335; 1-800-873-3321 or www.ernstseed.com.
* * *
Ernst at forefront of soil bioengineering
By Susan Crowell
MEADVILLE, Pa. – Riparian and stream bank stabilization re-entered the conservation spotlight in the 1990s. And when it arrived, Ernst Conservation Seeds was ready.
In the early 1980s, the Crawford County company started planting and harvesting two willow species and a dogwood species developed and released through the USDA Plant Material Center.
These willows and dogwoods, which develop roots along their stems, are used to help curb erosion along steam banks. This method of “construction” is called “bioengineering,” and uses a combination of traditional erosion control practices and live vegetation to provide erosion control on slopes and stream banks.
In late winter and early spring, huge loads of brush arrive at Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville from nearby plantings. The shrubs are separated and cut into unrooted cuttings (8-12 inches long and about one-half inch in diameter that can simply be pushed by hand into the ground); whips (unrooted cuttings 3 feet to 5 feet long); or wattles (bundles of branches about 6 feet long that, when planted in shallow trenches, sprout out along the entire length of the wattle).
Rooted cuttings and rooted stakes are started in the company’s nursery.
According to the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, advantages of bioengineering are:
* a fast-growing cover for bank protection, which speeds us regeneration;
* low cost and lower long-term maintenance cost than traditional methods;
* low maintenance of live plants after they are established;
* environmental benefits of wildlife habitat, water quality improvement and aesthetics;
* improved strength over time as root systems develop and increase structural stability; and
* compatibility with environmentally sensitive sites or sites with limited access.
But, on the flip side, limitations include:
* installation is often limited to plant dormant seasons, when site access may be limited;
* labor needs are intensive and skilled, experienced labor may not be available; and
* installers may not be familiar with bioengineering principles and designs.
Willows may also need constant managing to control invasiveness. Channels where they are installed may become choked, possibly rerouting the water flow.