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Government money and the chance to get into new markets have some producers going all in on seed cleaners.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

March 20, 2024

7 Slides

On a cool, rainy day in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier, one of Dave Johnson’s employees is busy fixing a cultivator in the farm’s shop.

It’s a last-minute tuneup as Johnson gets his farm ready for the upcoming growing season. But he and his employees have been working nonstop getting another part of the farm ready.

Just out the back door of the shop and across a muddy driveway is an unusual-looking building set across the foggy March landscape. It’s where Johnson, his son, Caleb, and others have been hard at work for months refurbishing used seed cleaning equipment, getting everything up and running for the coming growing season.

Johnson has been cleaning his own seed and grain for 15 years. But with more interest from other farmers and seed companies wanting clean seed, and the prospect of being able to do more value-added crops, he’s taking seed cleaning to the next level.

“As a small-scale producer, competing in the commodity market is really tough, unless you’re doing thousands of acres,” he says. “I went the seed cleaning route because I’m thinking more of value-added crops, like things on contract for flour mills, and they want a higher-quality product for food grade. And specialty crops on contract, they want good quality and clean. Cleaning commodity crops reduces getting docked at the elevator. And we also want to save our own seed.”

His operation, Provident Farm in Liberty, Pa., is 400 acres and everything is grown certified organic. Mechanical seed cleaners come in all shapes and sizes, but the end goal is the same: to clean seed of foreign materials that often are picked up in a field. Modern machines are sophisticated. Some use magnetic separators and optical sorters with cameras that see foreign materials.

Johnson’s operation is much simpler. His machines just use air and different-sized screens that can be changed depending on seed size. Most of his equipment — including a Crippen H434A four-screen grain, seed and bean cleaning unit; a Clipper 228D, a two-screen pre-cleaner that removes bulk trash; and a gravity table seed cleaner — was purchased last year.

The precleaning machine can do 1,200 bushels per hour, while the four-screen machine can do 100 to 200 bushels per hour. The gravity table does about 50 bushels per hour.

The building housing the cleaners was a corn crib, but it sat empty once Johnson and his son decided to quit harvesting ear corn. They hired a local contractor to raise the center of the building’s roof 10 feet to accommodate an elevator that feeds the seed cleaners below. The seed cleaners are on two levels, and there are several augers and conveyors running with room for many more.

Interest growing

Charles Stodden Jr., whose family runs Commodity Traders International in Trilla, Ill., has seen many ups and downs in the seed cleaning equipment business since his mother and father went all in on selling seed cleaning equipment in the mid-1990s. Back then, there was a wave of companies and producers interested in native plant restorations, and seed cleaners became popular.

Then, a wave of interest was brought on by producers who wanted to grow crops to feed the growing malting barley market.

Soon after, a push for seed cleaners came from producers wanting to cash in on industrial hemp.

The current wave, Stodden says, is all about farm-to-fork and cover crops. Many producers and companies want seed cleaning equipment for local food production. Much of the demand, he says, is being pushed by government grants pushing more local food production.

“I got 25 quotes this week alone on seed cleaning equipment,” he says.

Cover crops are also a big interest. As the government pushes more incentives to plant cover crops, Stodden says many producers want clean seed that they can either reuse or even sell to other producers, particularly if it is off patent.

“A lot of farms are getting into cleaning cover crops,” he says. “It’s all over. Everyone is starting to look at it more, and I think it’s because there are government incentives.

“We never run out of work,” he adds.

Keeping it simple

Thor Oeschner has been seed cleaning for many years and, like Johnson, he’s tried keeping things simple.

Oeschner is founder of Oeschner Farms in Trumansburg and Newfield, N.Y. He farms 1,000 acres split up in 125- to 150-acre lots of corn, hard red spring wheat, winter wheat, rye, buckwheat, red clover and various cover crops.

He’s been seed cleaning since 1995 when he bought a two-screen cleaner at auction for $50. He describes the cleaner as small enough to put on a kitchen table. “That’s how I did it because I was small, I didn’t have anything,” Oeschner says.

Now, he has an air screen cleaner where everything gets rough-cleaned through a two-screen cleaner. He also has a custom-built cleaner that blows air at high speed over grain and a GT batch dryer with a cleaning system inside it.

“We like to put the grain in storage pretty darn clean,” he says.

Oeschner grew up in Croton, just north of New York City. One of his first jobs, he remembers, was working for a local farm that did its own slaughtering and selling meats. This is where he learned about value-added enterprises.

“That’s how I got the idea to do seed cleaning because that’s how he made it,” he says.

Seed cleaning has opened a lot of markets for Oeschner and his farm. He sells seed to distilleries, a malthouse and other places that want clean seed. Recent changes to New York state law designed to promote local breweries and distilleries have benefited his and other farms, he says.

In 2009, he and two other millers founded Farmer Ground Flour. The company mills flour from Oeschner’s fields, as well as other farms in the state.

Oeschner says the market for clean seed for value-added products is big, but it requires producers to think about more than just growing a good crop.

“I’ve cornered nothing, the market is huge, but you got to go out there and find the people,” he says. “If you want to be in that, you need to be a people person. It’s one thing to clean the seed, but you have to build relationships with people.”

Growing another generation

Back at Provident Farm, Dave Johnson hopes the new cleaning equipment will open more markets and make it possible for his son, Caleb, to keep the farm going well into the future.

Dave bought the farm in 1995 for $1,000 per acre. At the time, it was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for 10 years. He began farming full time in 1999 and converted the farm to organic production in 2001. He milked cows for 15 years, shipping milk through Organic Valley. But the cows were sold off in 2015.

He has four children, but Caleb is the lone one on the farm.

The investment in the equipment and building he estimates at more than $40,000. He hopes new contracts for clean seed will enable him to recoup his investment, and more, in short order.

What’s his advice to other producers?

“Be willing to invest the time and money and realize that it’s got to be profitable and useful for you, and not just because it’s fun. That’s probably the biggest thing. It’s got to pay, bottom line,” Johnson says. “There’s still a learning curve to set things up and what screens to use. But I’m confident it will work. I think we will have to make it work.”

Read more about:

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About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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