Bringing the prairie to LIFE
JSO Farms was formed in 2012 but the seeds of its foundation literally go way back; way, way back.
JSO Farms, which is owned jointly by Jason and his father, Bill Olson, produce native prairie grass and flower seed.
Feder Prairie Seeds had been started by Wayne Feder, of rural Blue Earth, in the 1990s. JSO Farms bought out Feder in 2002 but did not change the name of the business until 2012.
Jason was working for the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley when the opportunity to acquire Feder Seeds came along.
“We used to do retail sales,” Jason Olson explains, “But we sold that part of the business to Shooting Star Native Seeds in Spring Grove in 2013.”
The operation produces more flower seed than grass seed.
“We do not grow anything which is not native to southern Minnesota,” Olson says.
A normal planting season for flowers and grasses would begin in late October and continue into November. The seeds are planted at this time so they can go through a stratification period.
A stratification period, according to Olson, is when the seeds go through a freeze-thaw cycle thereby breaking the dormancy phase and allowing the seeds to germinate the following spring.
JSO farms also utilizes a small green house for starting some flowers. These plants are then transplanted in the field in the spring.
Depending on what crop is being grown, it may be planted in 40-inch rows or solid seeded.
Before the crop pokes through the ground in the spring, the Olsons will be out spraying, usually by late April, to kill perennial and summer annual weeds.
The crops which are planted in rows can be cultivated by machine. There are some sprays which can be used, but like conventional crops, not every spray is safe to use on every crop.
The solid seeded crops must be hand-weeded. The plots are usually two acres, so when family and local crews come to do the weeding, it is not so overwhelming to get one plot done.
“It is like large-scale gardening,” Olson comments.
The first year a crop is planted it is not harvested. It is mowed as a form of weed control and is not allowed to flower.
The second year the flowers are allowed to grow and a decent harvest will usually occur.
It is the third year which most often results in the best harvest, according to Olson, although it is possible to get some good crops in years four and five.
During the growing season the crop will be inspected by someone from the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA).
The MCIA will verify the genetic identity of native grasses and wildflowers has been maintained through all phases of seed production. In addition to checking the seed production sites, MCIA also verifies the seed source and does testing of the seed.
MCIA will then issue seed labels or certificates to producers whose production has met all verification standards.
Similar to conventional farming, Olson explains they have a crop rotation for growing their native plants. Their rotation is just different.
When a field of native flowers or grasses is deemed to be past its productive life, it is plowed up. The following year it will be planted to soybeans, the next year corn, then soybeans for two more years before it would be planted to flowers again, Olson says.
Harvest is done in a variety of ways. Some crops are harvested by hand, some with a combine and some with a forage chopper. The type of plant and seed dictates the method of harvest. The combine may have a bean head on it or it may utilize a pick-up head, depending on the crop, Olson explains.
“If the seeds are soft and delicate we are unable to use a combine,” Olson states.
Do not expect to see some new, fancy combine in the field harvesting the flower crop.
“We like old Massey combines,” Olson notes. “They are known for handling wet material very well.”
The combines Olson refers to are actually late 1960s or early 70s models. They have more than one combine for many reasons. Harvesting the native seeds requires the combines be cleaned before switching from one variety of flower/grass seed to another. The goal is to always have one combine cleaned and ready to go in case it is necessary to switch the harvest to a different variety.
“Harvest usually begins around the fourth of July and will continue through the first part of November or until the weather dictates we are done.” Jason Olson explains.
The largest seed they harvest is a sunflower seed. Many of the seeds which are harvested are very small. One of the smallest seeds, Culver’s Root, has 1.5 million seeds per ounce.
Winter is seed cleaning time at JSO Farms. On average each type of seed will go through five different cleaning processes.
The seeds grown by JSO farms are often combined to make prairie mixes. They can then be used for many various purposes. Some will be used to seed Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. The Fish and Wildlife Service will also use a mix for prairie restoration. The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation are two other entities which will make use of prairie mixes.
“The value of the business comes from being sourced within Minnesota,” Olson says. “The majority of our seeds are sourced from Martin, Blue Earth and Faribault counties.”
Currently there are less than 10 native seed growers in the state, according to Olson, and the number has been decreasing.
“It takes a lot of physical work and many of the people in the business are retirement age,” Olson says. “So there has been some reduction in the number of native operations over the years.”
So with the winter season seemingly in the rear-view mirror, JSO farms looks forward to another year of growing prairie flower and grass seeds which will ensure these native plants remain viable in the area for years to come.