By Tania Foster
Dean Swift, Jaroso, CO, is as colorful an individual as the flowers he grows.
The former philosophy professor had no prior farming experience before switching to production agriculture as a livelihood. Now, 25 years later, Swift is a certified wildflower seed producer, with his own wholesale company.
Swift got his start harvesting and selling evergreen tree seeds, but needed a way to expand his business. He added wildflowers to his operation, shortly after moving to Jaroso, a tiny town located in Colorado's picturesque San Luis Valley.
"The biggest unknowns have been in how to produce the seeds, because each flower variety has different characteristics," Swift says. "I had to learn a lot about equipment and different types of cultivators. I had to learn how to get a good stand, because a lot of these plants are tough to get germinated.
"There is a need for wildflower seed, but the technical hurdles of learning how to produce it was a challenge. We run test plots before planting anything. It always is better to make mistakes on a small scale," he adds.
Each year, Swift gathers flower seed in the mountains and on the plains to start new test plots. Once a species is established, it will set seed the following year. Swift then can rely on the "farmed" seed to maintain the crop.
A plant's longevity depends on the specie. Some varieties will produce for a couple years, while others produce for up to 10 years. For flowers that are difficult to grow, Swift uses seed that is germinated, also known as "starts."
"Each plant specie is unique as far as its germination requirements, tolerance of cultivation and herbicides, and harvest and cleaning methods you can use," he says.
Currently, Swiftsells about 20 wildflower seed varieties. Most of the seed produced are varieties native to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Colorado. He begins planting in June, to avoid spring winds. From July through September, the valley's fields are brilliant with asters, columbines, echinacia, blue flax, several varieties of daisies and blooming sage, among others.
With any type of agriculture, different crops and crop varieties are best suited for different locations. Wildflowers are no exception. Over the years, Swift has experimented with as many as 50 seed varieties, eliminating many along the way.
"We are like an experiment station in a lot of ways. This climate is ideal for some flowers, but it is tough on others. We select based on soil and climalogical characteristics," he says.
"I rely on experience and knowledge of the plant's native habitat. But I have to say, this is a long learning curve. I will not get it all figured out in my lifetime."
The combination of cold winters and minimal annual rainfall in the San Luis Valley is surprisingly complimentary to several of the flower species Swift produces.
A flower's root system is shallow--generally a matter of inches--so many of the plants don't require a lot of water. Local species are watered much less than the Midwestern species, which come from moister areas.
Swift uses center pivot and furrow irrigation, depending on the field set up. Most of the irrigation water comes from the winter snow melt.
Because the region's winter temperatures drop between 20 and 30 degrees below zero, insect pressure is minimized during the growing season. Humidity also is low, so powdery mildew common to many flower-producing areas is not a problem. Given these factors, Swift does not have to use insecticides or fungicides.
However, lack of weeds is not a luxury he can claim. There are few herbicides labeled for wildflowers, so cultivation plays a large role in weed control.
All summer long, Swift and his crew till the fields using five different styles of cultivators to keep ahead of the weeds.
"A lot of these plants are small and not very aggressive, so they do not compete well with weeds," he says. "We have used some pre-emergent herbicides, but I believe it is causing a reduction in seed production in some of the varieties. As far as I can tell, it is an effect of the herbicide. So, this year, we are cutting back on our herbicide use."
Swift alsoutilizes alfalfa as a form of weed control, used in a rotation with the flowers.
"Alfalfa builds soil and crowds out the perennial weeds very well, because of its aggressive growth," he adds.
To farm his plots, Swift has retrofitted old John Deere tractors to handle the delicate harvest of wildflowers.
"On our operation, we do everything in four-rows, so we don't need big equipment. It is appropriate, because in this business, 10 acres is a big plot," he says. "We don't have a single piece of equipment that hasn't been modified. The only thing original on my combine is the color."
Harvest methods depend on theflower species, but everything requires some degree of manual labor. For the plants which shatter easy, Swift and his crew manually cut the flower stalks and spread them out on large tarps to dry. Once the stalks are dry, the seeds are separated using pitchforks and a lot of elbow grease. A few of the hardier varieties are manually fed into the combine.
"With a lot of these wildflowers, the seed shatters easily when it matures. Flowers are not like wheat, which holds its head," Swift explains.
"There is still a lot of chafe after the seed is separated, because of the nature of the plant. You can't use much air in a combine, because the seed will blow out the back. We cover the fan inlet when we are combining, in order to get the air adjusted where we need it," he adds.
"The operation has mechanized quite a bit, but there is still a lot of physical labor involved in what we do. The harvest is the challenge. Seed cleaning is a lot of work too."
After the seed is separated and dried for one to two weeks, it is hauled to a large shed for cleaning. As with his farming equipment, all Swift's seed cleaning machines were originally used for traditional crops, and have been modified for wildflower seeds.
Each variety requires its own cleaning process. For that reason, Swift has in stock dozens of screens, used to filter and separate seeds from the chafe and other waste by size, shape, density and weight. After separation, the seed is run through a brush-like machine and polished.
The seed is cleaned to 99% purity. A majority of the excess material ends up back in the field, spread across the rows. To maintain his certified status, Swift continually runs tests to monitor seed cleanliness and purity.
The final product is stored in large barrels. Storage temperature depend on the variety, but all seed must be kept in a cool, dry place.
Most of the seed remains viable for many years after harvest. A benefit, since the time lapse between when the flower is planted and sold can be as much as two and one-half years.
Swift keeps a good amount of stock on everything he grows, for himself and his customers. But matching the market is no small task. What and how much he plants is based on experience.
"We have a feel for how much we need," he says. "But we still end up not matching the market on a lot of things. It is tricky; it is agriculture.
"We look for varieties people use. For some species, we have more demand than we are able to supply. But we always try to concentrate on the varieties we do well," he adds.
For the most part, wildflower seed production is a small industry, with a big demand. Swift's operation is one of the larger of its kind, so he must focus on larger markets. The bulk product is sold primarily to seed companies, the horticulture industry and for reclamation purposes, such as landscaping highways. Most of the product finds its way into the Rocky Mountains and across the mid and southwest.
Still, he is content with his place in the industry, as a farmer.
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