Creative solutions to gardening problems

Facilities’ innovations simplifies the work at SSE

The Facilities Department at Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) has a number of responsibilities that keep them on the run at Heritage Farm:

  • Maintaining the buildings and equipment

  • Grounds upkeep

  • Caring for the White Park cattle, ducks, turkeys, geese, and chickens

  • Maintaining the wildlands, which includes 8.9 miles of trail, trout streams, deer management plans, and monitoring for invasive species

  • Farming hay and oats

  • Developing safety and emergency plans

But according to Facilities manager Jim Edrington, “Our favorite part of our job is getting to build unique stuff.”

Tim, Greg, Corey, Jim, Dick

Tim, Greg, Corey, Jim, Dick

Tim and Greg specialize in mechanics and caring for the cattle, Dick does carpentry, Corey does small engine repair and carpentry, but they all work together to come up with innovative ideas and creations that make everyone's jobs easier and more manageable.

Much of the equipment used at SSE is available commercially, but it is often quite expensive, difficult to repair, and not specialized for our particular needs. When employees recognize an issue that is slowing down work, Facilities tries to come up with a solution that is inexpensive, uses readily available materials, and most importantly, gets the job done!

Squash Squisher

"Little John," the squash squisher

"Little John," the squash squisher

One Fall, the SSE garden crew harvested a small, hard, ornamental pumpkin and when it came time to collect the seeds, they discovered that it was impossible to crack open, even with a hammer. To solve this problem, the squash squisher, nicknamed Little John, was invented. Made of oak and a sharpened steel blade, Little John has a large arm with movable parts that provides the leverage necessary to split open squash that vary in size and hardness.

Dry Seed Processing

Beans in the drying cabinet

Beans in the drying cabinet

Drying cabinets are wooden cabinets with built in fans that circulate air in order to dry beans fresh from the field. Facilities built the ones at SSE, with Dick and Corey doing the carpentry work, while Jim did the the electrical work and installed the fans. The fans were purchased locally, so that if one breaks, parts or a replacement can be obtained the same day.

Next to the drying cabinets is the dry seed processing room. In this room, seeds such as corn, beans, and sunflower are threshed and winnowed to separate the seeds from the chaff. This creates a lot of dust, and when it’s hot pepper time, fumes.

Air ventilation system in the dry seed processing room

Air ventilation system in the dry seed processing room

Facilities created an air system for the dry seed processing room, based on the type of ventilation systems one would often see in wood shops. Creating our own system means that it is designed specifically to meet our needs. One part of the system is a vacuum table - seeds can be sorted directly on the table and a vacuum vent sucks the dust and chaff away before they even have time to float off into the air.

Germination Chambers

Germination chambers are located in our greenhouses and allow us to get seeds started early in the Spring. They are commercially available, but very expensive. Facilities built our chambers out of old greenhouse glazing. The constructed the chambers, installed shelving, but then had to develop a constant source of heat and moisture. Dick suggested using an electric kitchen roaster filled with water, which works perfectly. If it burns out, we can get another one inexpensively at any hardware store.

Garlic Digger

The garlic digger

The garlic digger

A commercial garlic digger was purchased several years ago, but it was found to be inefficient - it brought up too much dirt and didn’t grab the garlic bulbs. Tim and his brother tackled this problem, developing a piece of farm machinery that drags chains spaced with wooden croquet balls under the dirt, bringing the bulbs up to the surface.

Just wait!

Thanks to facilities, our jobs are always getting easier and more efficient. On their creation list this year are a harvester for saplings from tree grafts and a rotating seed screen based on the design of manure turner.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.