Peggy Hunt is a born educator. She’s an agronomist — that’s a person who applies scientific principles to crop production — and she is director of the state’s Plant Materials Center located a few miles from downtown Palmer. On this unusually hot July day, she’s leading me around the Center and its grounds.
“We are looking at, in our country and in our world, you know, climate change. Are we going to have seeds, do we need seeds for survival.”
That’s a sobering thought. Few of us pay attention to the tiniest of agricultural necessities. But the Plant Materials Center makes seed cultivation and preservation its business. In one respect, the Center functions as a place that preserves, catalogues and stores seed for future use.
“This is a place where we have saved those seeds. Just what we have in here, at least, is the Native plants, the forestry seeds.”
We are standing in a cavernous, chilly and dimly lit building, even though outside the temperature is in the eighties at high noon. Peggy gestures toward the back of the building
“Way back there is a freezer that has forestry seeds in it, so it’s a germplasm reserve.”
Of course, the Center deals with grasses and vegetable seeds that farmers use every season, too. The Center is one of 27 in the US. Each one is responsible for a distinct region. All of them, except Alaska’s, are federally funded. Ours is funded by the state.
It’s the Center’s job to ensure that seed provided to local farmers is not only 100 percent pure, but has a guaranteed high germination rate.
Hunt leads me to another building, this one full of odd – looking contraptions.
“Here’s some more screens. Again, this would go for a different sized machine, such as this. You can have two or three different screens in here. “
The machines are seed separators – some use air , others strainers, to separate out the unwelcome seed. They give the room the look of a giant’s kitchen. Dozens of screens, strainers, and collander like gadgets hang from the walls. They can separate out the one noxious weed seed from the thousands and thousands that fill a bag of lettuce seeds
[“And many times we have to put them through several different kinds of machines. “
“So identification would be really important. “
“Absolutely. Some seeds are heavier than others. And dead seeds are lighter weight. So by putting it into an air machine, where it’s blowing the seeds up, the heavier, good seed comes through.”
Pure seeds are bagged, weighed and stored.
“……like this one here, they’ve got it written on here. 23 pounds. This is Nugget, which is a bluegrass.”
But how do we know the seeds will sprout?
“This is Lubo Mahlev.” “Lubo, yes.” “Hi.” “Good to meet you.” “What are you doing in here?” “Well, this is the seed lab.”
To make sure that seeds actually sprout, not fizzle out, researchers at the center put them through germination tests. That’s Lubo Mahlev’s job. He works in the state seed research lab.
“So for each germination test we test 400 seeds. So there are like four racks of a hundred seeds. And this one right here, it is called Beach Flea Bane. It requires one week of pre-chill.”
Lubo pulls one germination sample out of a storage unit that is heat and light controlled to mimic actual day and night fluctuations in outdoor temperature and light. Twice a year, the Center sells seeds it deems one hundred percent pure. The seed, by law, must be tested within 18 months of sale.
“And you know, that helps the seed producer, so they can get the highest price for their seed, and it also helps the customer, because when you buy seed you want to buy seed that will grow.”
Just outside the lab, green fields spread for 200 acres. Irrigation sprinklers hiss on the fields of hay and grasses that are being grown to provide even more seeds for research, cleaning and sale. Something to think about next time you buy a head of Alaska Grown lettuce. Not surprisingly, some of the Center’s research is aimed at potatoes. The Mat Valley is known for its potatoes, but to ensure that quality is upheld, the Center works to provide certified disease – free seed spuds.