Organic growing leads to seed house expansion

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Albert Lea Seed House will soon be sowing the seeds of expansion, thanks to a $50,000 loan from the City of Albert Lea.

The loan was approved by the city council Monday. According to Mac Ehrhardt, who owns and operates Albert Lea Seed House with his brother Tom, the loan will help the corporation to make improvements to their existing line by purchasing new equipment for organic seeds, the fastest-growing segment of agriculture.

&uot;The new USDA organic rule requires organic farmers to use organic seed that was produced in certified organic fields and processed in a certified organic plant,&uot; said Ehrhardt.

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He said although the equipment they will purchase is not equipment they don’t already have, the expansion will allow the business to have two cleaning lines: one for cleaning conventionally produced seeds, and one for organically produced seeds.

Cleaning refers to removing all of the debris collected during harvesting, such as weeds, contaminants, insects, hay, trash and dirt, so that only the usable part &045; the pure seed itself &045; remains. And ridding the seed of contaminants is a necessity in the organic seed business.

&uot;If you’re in a grocery store and you’re buying certified organic food, you don’t want it contaminated with non-organic seed. Then you’re paying extra money for something that’s not truly organic,&uot; Ehrhardt said.

Having a separate cleaning line will enable the company to be 100 percent sure that their seed is certified organic seed, organically grown with no possibility of cross-contamination.

The expansion is also good news for local businesses. Ehrhardt said that some customers drive to Albert Lea from a considerable distance and spend the night in a hotel, which usually also means eating their dinner in a restaurant and possibly visiting other businesses.

&uot;In the four-state area, we have over 10,000 active customers in 1,551 different ZIP codes. These are, for the most part, farm customers, and they make a trip to Albert Lea to buy seed from us,&uot; said Ehrhardt.

Besides Albert Lea, all of Freeborn County stands to benefit from the loan as well.

&uot;The seed that we’re processing here is locally grown and our producers are receiving a premium for growing it,&uot; said Ehrhardt.

Ehrhardt said the same product the farmer grows is processed locally with local labor. Although they do have customers living within the county, the product is then mainly sold to customers living outside Freeborn County.

&uot;For the most part, the local products will be sold over a much larger area, say a four- or five-state area,&uot; said Ehrhardt.

Ehrhardt expects to get started on the expansion this summer.

&uot;We’ve got to have it done by Oct. 1,&uot; he said.

Although they are putting up a new building, the new equipment will go in the existing building.

The city loan cannot pay for the new building; the money comes from an economic-development fund, furnished by the state, that can only be spent for industrial projects. The cleaning equipment the business needs qualifies as industrial, so the seed house can use the loan to pay for it.

The expansion will also eventually create new jobs. Over the course of the next three to four years, Ehrhardt expects to possibly fill three to five full-time jobs, especially when including the seasonal jobs.

Ehrhardt said that had the loan not been available, the expansion would have taken place anyway.

&uot;I don’t think it’s a case where we would have had to put it off for a year or two, because the way the organic rule works, we would have had to go ahead and do this anyhow, but it would have been tougher for us to do it.&uot;

However, Ehrhardt is glad the city council approved it.

&uot;It’s good to feel that the city is behind you, that the people in the community are taking an interest in the success of your business,&uot; he said.