Folks around Meadville, Pa., may think of Calvin Ernst as that quiet, always-thinking “seed guy.” In other quarters, he might be the “butterfly guy."
But at mid-April’s Agri-Marketing Conference in Kansas City, Mo., Ernst will gain another recognition: 2018 Agribusiness Leader of the Year. He’ll be honored by the National Agri-Marketing Association. The award, by the nation’s largest marketing and agribusiness association, is given to senior agribusiness executives who exemplify business excellence and make significant industry contributions.
Significant ag contributions
The agribusiness leader criteria perfectly fits this founder and president of Ernst Conservation Seeds.
With his wife, Marcia, and his family, this Master Farmer built a globally recognized business developing and marketing legume, native grass and wildflower seeds, plus conservation-related plants. The Ernst family, including children Andy, Michael and Robin, received the Mid-Atlantic Master Farmer award in 2008.
More than a decade before the current Farmers for Monarch nationwide program, Ernst Conservation Seeds began working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Xerces Society to develop milkweed and expand availability of butterfly, common and swamp milkweed seed for conservation plantings. By 2014, the business had conservation seed production facilities in Pennsylvania and Florida, plus contracts with growers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland.
How it grew
Ernst has accomplished much in an industry that he largely pioneered. As a student and greenhouse worker at Penn State University in the 1960s, he discovered crown vetch’s erosion control potential. After starting Ernst Crownvetch Farms, he began raising vetch and other species seeds while collaborating with federal agencies, highway departments and land developers to revegetate rights-of-ways and highway mediums, plus establish wetlands and meadows using native seeds. He even raised weed seeds for university research plots.
As the crown vetch market collapsed, Ernst shifted product offerings to native plant seeds, and renamed his company to Ernst Conservation Seeds. The agribusiness began specializing in custom mixes for wetland mitigation, restoration and wildlife habitat. Then came bioengineering, consulting and producing live plant materials for stream bank restoration and other uses. It also began extensive research and development of switchgrass varieties for biofuel.
Long a believer in continual education, Ernst has shared his expertise at events around the world. In China, he helped promote intercropping perennial legumes with annual grain crops to reduce crop inputs and erosion.
What began as five acres of crown vetch in Crawford County now includes nearly 10,000 acres of native grasses and wildflowers plus a staff of nearly 90 full-time employees. Visit ernstseed.com for more information.