UPTON, Ky. — About 20 years ago, Randy Seymour and his son John began collecting and growing native plant seed on their family farm along Raider Hollow Road in Hart County, Ky.
They started small, John Seymour says, expanding seed production gradually with the cultivation of locally sourced grasses, forbs, wildflowers and legumes, replacing the 40,000-pound tobacco base and 150 head of beef cattle that had been raised on the farm each year.
The result is Roundstone Native Seeds, which is making a name for itself among gardeners and farmers interested in growing plants native to Kentucky, and to scientists exploring the benefits of plants.
The Seymours were conservationists ahead of the current surge of interest in native plants.
That reflects a family tradition of searching out and using the diverse plant species that for centuries have grown in undisturbed glades, wetlands and prairie in the Big Barrens region in west-central Kentucky, remnants of an estimated 3 million acres of tall grass prairie and savannah that existed before the land was settled.
Seymour says his grandmother Myrtie Seymour knew about and used native plants as part of everyday life on the farm. His father learned from her, and gained expertise as a naturalist. He served on the board of The Nature Conservancy and in 1997 wrote the reference book "Wildflowers of Mammoth Cave National Park" (University Press of Kentucky, $19.95).
Now, Seymour says, "We deal with them so much that I can't drive down the road without seeing undisturbed prairie remnants."
Those areas are recognizable by their plant diversity, perhaps containing as many as 100 kinds of native plants.
Roundstone Native Seeds has expanded to encompass a collaborative enterprise of about 2,000 acres throughout the area, in which more than 40 farms participate. Seed of more than 200 native plants — including big bluestem and Indian grass, and wildflowers such as Maximilian sunflower, tickseed and starry rosinweed — is grown for wholesale and retail trade. It is cleaned, mixed, stored and packaged on-site at the Seymours' Riders Mill Farms, in a facility the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board helped to fund.
The company's expertise, gained bit by bit with hands-on work, has led to opportunities in growing and consulting with programs in Kentucky and other states. The complexity of managing the collection — planting, harvesting, cleaning, storing and marketing of so many types of seed — is mind-boggling. Specialized equipment is needed for some species, but others must be harvested by hand.
"Everything we do is a daily experiment," says manager Shane Butler, whose adjacent farm was one of the first to join the group. "We want to farm and make good use of our land but also want to be good stewards."
Roundstone's customers are using native plants to improve the environment in many ways. Having seed they know is well-adapted for growing conditions in the Southeast is a plus; previously, much of the seed that was widely available was from sources in the Western United States.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, for instance, has renovated pastures with quail-friendly habitat. Jeremy Hamlington, production manager at Roundstone, says perennial grasses, like little bluestem, grow in clumps that shelter birds with cover but they are easy to run through; native wildflowers are interspersed to attract pollinator insects which also provide a food source for the birds.
Another place where Roundstone has provided native plant seeds is the newly developed Parklands at Floyd's Fork near Louisville, Ky.
Customers also include the many private land owners who enroll their acreage in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program; an annual rental stipend is paid to participants, and they in turn contract to plant and maintain species that will improve environmental health. Roundstone collaborates with programs in Daniel Boone and Cherokee National Forests, as well, to propagate and restore plant species from seeds collected at each location.
A different use of Roundstone's native seed is evidenced by Solidagex, a company launched in 2011 that produces extracts refined from native Kentucky goldenrod.
Solidagex CEO Terry Minton says broad applications exist for extracts from plants grown on 85 acres at Roundstone; they include antioxidant qualities in animal feed, anti-inflammatory properties useful in skin care and cold products, and natural insecticidal and antimicrobial traits that are important in combating food spoilage.