Column Blowers and Blowing Snow: A Winter Internship

January at Heritage Farm

“But what will you do at Seed Savers Exchange during the winter?”

I heard a few variations of this question during the months leading up to my internship here. For folks unfamiliar with what this organization does, the new year might seem to be a slow time for a place like Seed Savers Exchange. Nothing is growing, and all of last season’s seeds have been harvested, cleaned, and stored – what more is there to do until spring sowing? After four wintery weeks of working here, I can tell you there is still plenty to do.

Column blower

A column blower is used to separate seed from chaff in dry-seeded crops.

In the first month of my winter internship, I had the opportunity to follow seeds around as they traveled through the hands of different staff members in the Preservation department. One of my first jobs was to help Amy Holmgren, our Greenhouse Manager, as she finished up the last of the seed conditioning process. Seed conditioning is the second, more thorough cleaning process that seeds undergo before they head back to our Preservation Lab. Over the course of several days, Amy and I used a variety of machines, including a column blower, a vacuum separator, and a clipper to clean corn, sorghum, carrot, and amaranth seeds. Then we picked through the seeds by hand, removing any remaining chaff, dirt, or unviable seeds before moving the seeds to the germination lab.

Next I followed the seeds down to the Preservation Lab and learned about seed evaluation and germination testing. The evaluation team of Tor Janson and Steffen Mirsky is responsible for evaluating hundreds of plant varieties grown out at the farm each year. When I arrived, Tor and Steffen were collecting data on the newly harvested seeds. Steffen and I entered data for a number of crop types, from lima beans to cowpeas and sorghum. Taste evaluations for dry beansWe took notes on seed coat color, patterning, and a host of other crop type-specific evaluation characteristics. A final but important step in the evaluation process is taste testing. One morning, Steffen cooked up nearly two dozen varieties of lima beans and cowpeas. The Preservation staff spent part of the late morning sampling the little morsels, scribbling down descriptors such as ‘creamy’ and ‘starchy’ like amateur legume sommeliers.

A checklist is attached to each bag of seed that passes through the Preservation department. ‘Seed Conditioning’ and ‘Seed Evaluation’ are on that list, but the checklist is not complete until the seeds are sent to Andrea Springmeier, the Preservation department’s germination expert. Though the techniques for germination testing are somewhat varied, they all boil down to placing the seeds onto moist paper, sealing them in a container, and placing the container into one of the germination chambers. Germination testingAfter a certain number of days—different for every plant type—Andrea pulls the germination tests from our germination chamber. She checks to see how many seeds have germinated and how many have not. Andrea also conducts moisture content tests to make sure that seeds will store well and germinate properly. When the tests are finished, Andrea is able to calculate a germination rate for that seed lot.

So far it has been a fascinating and busy winter here in in the Preservation department, following seeds from the field to the vault. As busy as I’ve been with these tasks, I’ve also been working with the Public Programs department planning the 2014 Diversity Garden for the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center display gardens. It’s an exciting task and I’m still in the planning stages, so stay tuned for more updates from this winter intern.

Interested in interning with Seed Savers Exchange?
Check out our intern openings.


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.

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