Seed Cleaning and Volunteerism at Kankakee Sands in Newton County

Contributed by Sarah Weaver, 219 GreenConnect volunteer:

Growing up I never volunteered or got involved in any causes. I ignored advice to volunteer to make myself a better candidate for graduate school, scholarships and jobs by doing a lot of mental gymnastics about why volunteering wasn’t right for me (normally in order to spend more quality time with my cat and Netflix). That changed this summer when, after applying and being interviewed for many summer jobs, I didn’t get anything. Anyone who knows the wilting touch and rejection of unemployment probably knows how I felt all summer and into fall. As an aside, I am in love with my major, Environmental Management, and I always tell people It makes me want to cry tears of joy that we found each other and that I would do environmental work for free so by mid fall it finally dawned on me to start volunteering. I began attending volunteer workdays with Shirley Heinze Land Trust, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and The Nature Conservancy.

After a few volunteer workdays Alyssa Nyberg from the Nature Conservancy at Kankakee Sands, offered to let me volunteer with her fall crew collecting and cleaning seeds. Collecting and cleaning seeds is a very important part of environmental restoration. Normally, plants flower in the spring and are pollenated by wind, birds and insects. In the fall, they lose their leaves and dry out so they can drop their seeds to plant a new generation of plants. Restoration projects, like those at Kankakee Sands and all over the world, plant native species to replace nonnative plants or to achieve balance with other native plants already on site. To promote genetic diversity in artificially restored land, the Nature Conservancy collects seeds from all over Northwest Indiana and Eastern Illinois, usually by cutting off about thirty percent of seed heads of a particular plant per collection area. This process creates large volumes of plant material that need to be dried and filtered to separate the seed from the stems and leaves. This is called seed cleaning.

Kankakee Sands is located in Newton County, Indiana, about 30 minutes south of Crown Point on US 41. The seed barn sits next to a beautifully restored tallgrass prairie that looks like it is made of gold when the sun is low. Entering the seed barn, you are hit by the wonderful smell of the drying seeds on framed screens and in bags that cover every surface of the barn. When I came to help, the barn was stuffed with bags of seeds to be processed and sorted for planting. To clean the seeds, the Nature Conservancy has wonderful old farm equipment like mills and threshers to separate seed from stems and leaves. They let me bag dried seeds, remove twigs and leaves from fluffy seeds by hand and use a thresher (which is an awesome machine with a round die that grinds up plant material). After processing, the seeds were re-bagged and tagged to be added to a seed mix later.

The work was fun, the people at the Kankakee Sands were great and the experience has seeded a desire to volunteer that I hope will germinate and take root in my future.

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