Jacie Jensen, dressed in a fleece hat and gardening gloves, looks up from her hoe to gaze at the view. She gestures to one field and says they planted blue rye there. Another field, she says, is full of yarrow. She stands amid rows of lupines and prairie smoke, and even though it’s spring on the Palouse – which means sunshine interspersed with hail and snow – a few blooms are present on the small plants.
Wayne and Jacie Jensen farm 4,000 acres around the Palouse; Wayne is a third generation farmer. Although he’s been in the business of farming for a long time – mostly a variety of wheat and peas, canola, garbanzo beans, and lentils, they have recently expanded to include a native seed business. In 2004, when wheat was three dollars a bushel – the price hadn’t been that low since the 1960s — they were looking for ways to diversify their farm. The native plant business had made headway already in the Midwest, but it wasn’t really until the 1990s and later that interest in native plants took off in the West. While looking for seed for their own restoration projects, Wayne and Jacie realized the abundance of native plants they had growing on their land on Paradise Ridge. Jacie says, “Well, if we could grow these things without trying, could we grow it if we tried?” That was when Thorn Creek Native Seed Farm was born. Their land on Paradise Ridge is some of the oldest of the family land and is where Wayne’s dad, who at 90 still drives the tractor, grew up.
Currently, they have about 300 acres of native grasses and about 30 acres of wildflowers. They decided what to grow by how easy the plants are to collect and propagate. The process begins when they start collecting seed from their land. Most of the seeds are certified source identified through the Idaho crop improvement association, which means the fields are inspected and testing is done in a state-approved seed lab to confirm there are no noxious weeds and the source of the original collection is documented. The seeds are then planted into a seed increase field. When they are mature, the species is either harvested or put into another certified field. The Jensens propagate the seed in tubes or direct seed it, which means planting it in the ground. Whether the species will thrive depends on whether they can control weeds and how easily it can be harvested. The next step is thrashing the plants (taking the seed out) and then cleaning the seeds since the seeds that have been thrashed usually have other plant material with them. At that point, the seeds are either reseeded or packaged and sold. It usually takes 2-3 years before they can generate a crop of native seeds since most natives don’t produce seed their first year.
Right now, they have twenty six different species in the seed increase plot and twenty different kinds of seeds to sell. The Jensens are continually in the process of deciding which species to expand or reduce based on how difficult they are to produce, harvest, clean, and market. Although Jacie and Wayne assert that there is increasing interest in growing native plants, very few people are doing wildflowers because it is risky and too difficult. There are “a lot of failures” says Jacie, but she continues with, “We think there’s a future in it.” Jacie explains that many wildflower mixes available to the public are wild-collected off public lands and are not certified. As a result, those mixes might contain weeds like bachelor buttons that are not only not native to here but are invasive to this area.
Their degrees in finance and traditional agriculture have not necessarily prepared them for this new venture, but they are learning as they go along. Little is known about production of native plants. “There’s not a lot of knowledge base yet,” says Jacie. Wayne adds, “A lot of trial and error.” Jacie explains that there are people who know about these plants in the wild, but knowing how to grow them in a field or how to mechanize some of the harvesting so it doesn’t all have to be done by hand is not known. Experience will tell the Jensens how something propagates and how to deal with certain diseases. Also, harvesting is a challenge since native seeds don’t all mature at the same time. Although one can buy, for example, the blanket flower galardia that will mature all at the same time, it is many generations and selections removed from the native. The Jensens’ seeds are only one generation removed from the native; the Jensens don’t do any plant selection in an effort to keep the seeds closer to their natural genetics. “With these natives, they were evolved with our climate, our insects, everything. These are natives to the Palouse,” says Jacie. Thorn Creek Native Seed Farm customers – landowners, gardeners, government agencies, landscapers, restoration companies — should not have to do anything to assist mother nature.
Figuring out how to make some of the labor mechanized is a challenge. A lot of modifications have to be made to equipment or new equipment sometimes even has to be built. The Jensens are currently modifying a vacuum to collect seeds and they have modified combines to collect wildflower seeds. Since they use no-till farming, a conservation practice that preserves soil health, they use a harrow, a tool similar to a rake, and then a drill that they borrow from Idaho Fish and Game to plant seeds in a row.
Research is always taking place on their land, with interests varying from insects to lizards, soil health, and weeds. The Jensens are hoping the research will lead to more information on soil health and food production. Recently, a giant palouse earthworm was discovered on their land. The Jensens weren’t surprised. “We suspected it was there,” said Wayne. Wayne explains that they keep learning more about the soils and soil health. He says, “It’s so inter-related,” referring to bugs, plants, soil, and soil life.
When asked what they want to come of their native seed farm, Wayne says, “We’d like to increase the awareness of native prairie plants.” Jacie adds, “I think it complements the rest of our philosophy in farming with stewardship of the land, so it fits nicely.” She adds, “Working with the prairie plants, you’re really just taking mother nature’s lead.”
–Andrea Clark Mason
Originally appeared in the July issue of The Ruralite, 2010