Conservationists and farmers, father and son Randy and John Seymour of Roundstone Native Seed are working to replace Kentucky’s native grasslands and plants. Learn how you can help by planting your own woodland garden.
The story of Roundstone Native Seed LLC in Upton—now one of the largest producers of native seeds in the eastern United States with thousands of acres in cultivation—began about 20 years ago with two men: a father and son picking a field of Hart County Indian grass carrying two 5-gallon buckets.
The men already had strong ties to the land in the Big Barrens region of west-central Kentucky. Randy Seymour, the father, had grown up in Munfordville, had written the book Wildflowers of Mammoth Cave after walking 900 miles in Mammoth Cave National Park, and was an active member of The Nature Conservancy.
His son, John, had grown up on a Hart County farm off Raider Hollow Road—an area that was at one time inhabited by John’s children’s fifth great-grandparents on his wife’s side. He attended Western Kentucky University while helping his father farm the land raising cattle, tobacco, and hay.
“I loved it,” he says. “I always loved living here. But we weren’t doing the best…We were kind of running a nonprofit farm.”
In the early 1990s, The Nature Conservancy was becoming interested in conservation programs that required native grass seeds, but the worry was that most were being produced across the Midwest and Canada where native grasses were not genetically similar to Kentucky grasses—the ones that had been growing on the almost 3,000,000 acres of Big Barren prairie for centuries.
“The lucky thing for us,” says John, “was that this end of Hart County had a lot of rough ground that hadn’t been plowed.
“I was looking to diversify my farming operation and a neighbor had one remnant field primarily in Indian grass. My dad and I went out one day with 5-gallon buckets and handpicked seeds.”
The Seymours’ initial niche market was for The Nature Conservancy and a few individuals who wanted very specific genotype seeds. As interest grew, John and Randy immersed themselves in native seed research, adding a few acres on the family farm to the project, and began planting native grasses for their seeds.
“It was four years before I had anything I could sell,” John says. “We never dreamed we would have what we have today.”
Their native seed learning curve went almost straight up. The industry was new, its participants reluctant to share information. It can take three or four years from an initial planting of seeds to get a harvest of any useful size.
The initial harvests went into old feed bags tied with baling string. The Seymours had to learn proper seed drying, cleaning, conditioning, and sorting techniques; some of their first crops heated up and were destroyed within 30 minutes.
Maintaining seed integrity was always a priority; necessity the mother of invention. With each grass, sedge, or flower seed head being different, it would eventually require 17 different pieces of harvesting equipment. Special portable seed hoppers were required to keep the seeds dry and cool during transportation.
Thousands of pounds of raw seeds would have to be cleaned and sorted from the chaff in a very complex, 18-step process using nine machines that combine the look of old-time, belt-driven, steam-powered equipment with more modern technology. The time required varied with the type of seed.
“We clean seed eight months a year in two, 10-hour shifts,” says John. “I can run 15,000 pounds of fescue in 10 hours, but only about 1,500 pounds of Indian grass or 15 pounds of wire grass.”
Once pure, the seeds also vary greatly in size; a pound of pure Indian grass might contain 175,000 seeds; a pound of black-eyed Susans almost 2 million seeds.
The Kentucky Agricultural Development Board worked with the Seymours on part of their original structures, including storage bins that will hold 1,800 bushels of seed and larger. Roundstone has also worked with the National Resources Conservation Service and its Plants Materials Program with the USDA, and must file records with the United States Forest Service.
The Seymours and staff also still go out to walk across miles of open fields and meet with farmers across the southeastern United States seeking more native seeds—adding 30 last year and 30 more this year.
Roundstone tries out and carefully monitors various planting methods and techniques to allow the company to tell others—from homeowners to farmers—how best to do it.
Seymour says that five years into their native seed operation they had about 150 acres in cultivation. Now they have more than 2,000 acres in cultivation with farming and wild harvest operations in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and the Florida Panhandle.
Some of the fields are more than 100 acres of one crop; others a 1/4 acre or even two rows.
“That’s the nightmare,” John says. “Keeping track of all that.”
Roundstone Native Seed now offers more than 250 species of regionally adapted seeds of flowers, grasses, and legumes, selling them across the eastern United States, including doing a lot of custom work for specific sites in places such as the Cherokee National Forest, in conjunction with Helm’s Seeding and Sodding Company LLC in Louisville, and 21st Century Parks’ development of 20 miles of The Parklands’ central area of Floyds Fork near Louisville.
“My dad is still very much involved,” says John. “It sure beats cutting tobacco.”
To order Roundstone Native Seeds
Roundstone Native Seed offers more than 250 native seeds in packages and mixes of all sizes and quantities for the individual homeowner, nature groups, or large farms.
It offers individual or premixed packages of seed for sedges, rushes, native wildflowers, grasses, wetlands, woodlands, back yards, meadows, and butterfly gardens—plus information on how and when to plant each. They also sell individual packets on Amazon.com.
For photos or more information call (270) 531-3034 or go online to www.roundstoneseed.com, where you can see photos or read their blog to learn more about planting native seeds.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: CREATE YOUR OWN WOODLAND GARDEN
No matter how much land you have, you can create a native seed habitat in your back yard, meadow, or wetland with some native seeds, patience, and a little knowledge shared from Roundstone Native Seed, go to Create your own woodlawn garden.