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Webster seeds

Webster seed business gearing up for spring rush

Steven Kuecker doesn’t measure much of his harvest in bushels of crop yielded per acre.

Instead, the Webster farmer tries to make $2 to $3 a bushel more than market price by growing seed that other farmers will eventually plant.

He said things are “starting to get crazy” at Kuecker Seed Farm. That’s because farmers are getting ready to pick up their wheat, barley and soybean seed from his operation. He said 20 to 30 trucks a day will soon be lined up at his farm.

While the seed goes out, Kuecker and his crew will be scrambling to plant the crops that will provide the seed for next year.

“In a year like this year, grain farming doesn’t look quite so profitable, so it’s nice to have this as another way to add value to our crops,” he said. “We’re paid a premium on the seed we produce.”

Kuecker said all of the spring wheat, barley and soybeans raised on the farm are for seed, but corn is grown to be sold at market.

On the Kuecker farm, clean equipment is an obsession. Kuecker takes pride in providing quality wheat, barley and soybean seed. To do that, the planters, trucks, combines, grain carts, bins and conditioning equipment all have to be free from contamination. Cleaning means using vacuums and leaf blowers to clear away any stray seeds and debris.

“Our main focus is spring wheat,” he said. “We could sell more than we produce each year. The 1,500 acres that we planted last year (for seed) produced 110,000 bushels of wheat for this year.”

He said the farm handles about 225,000 bushels of its own seed each year and does custom cleaning for others. The farm also sells soybeans and corn for companies.

“The beans we grow in our fields are all for seed. Once harvested, we condition them for the seed companies and ship them out,” Kuecker said.

Not everyone can sell seed. Kuecker Seed has a seed permit from the state, and it is an approved certified seed conditioner. Inspectors come to the farm to look at the cleaning machinery and make sure everything is up to standards.

Each of the seed varieties has to meet state standards of purity and germination, Kuecker said. For wheat and barley, the minimum is 85 percent germination, and it can’t be sold for seed until it meets that. For beans, it’s 90 percent.

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“Our seed is typically in the mid-90s,” he said. “We like the wheat to be a good, dark color. If it gets rained on before harvest, it can lose color and test weight.”

As he grew up, Kuecker learned to run all of the machines on the farm, absorbing that valuable information. He was just starting his sophomore year studying agronomy at SDSU in 2003 when his father, Richard, died unexpectedly at age 51. Steven and his mom, Amy, decided to keep the company going. With his mom’s help, he quickly learned the business end.

“I knew the process of how to make sure everything was kept clean and pure,” Steven Kuecker said. “It was hard. We had finished combining, so I had some time to clean seed and figure out the record keeping before spring came and farmers needed seed. That made it easier.”

His mom said that he has done a wonderful job running the company, especially since he was 19 when he stepped in to fill his father’s shoes.

Richard Kuecker and his father, Norman, built the business.

“Grandpa started selling seed in the late 1950s,” Steven Kuecker said.

The seed plant was built in 1968. At that time, he said, the whole focus of the area was on growing small grains: spring wheat, barley, flax, oats and millet. Farmers used pickups, small wagons and gravity boxes to pick up seed.

Things have changed a great deal since then. It would be hard to find any flax or millet grown in the area. And equipment is much larger.

General farming practices have changed, with more corn and beans being grown. Living close to Bitter Lake, the Kueckers have been challenged, as water has encroached on 400 acres of their land.

“We’re not as bad off as some neighbors who have lost their whole farms,” Kuecker said. “We’ve lost acres and access. It takes more to move equipment, but it could be worse.”

Each year, Kuecker faces the same big question as other farmers: “What will the price be in the fall?”

The biggest challenge in the business is to lead the trend and know what farmers will want a year out. Then, Kuecker has to grow it and have it in the bin before customers want it for planting.

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In addition to family members, Kuecker Seed employs four others to help with the work. Kuecker’s brother, Landon, is finishing his agronomy degree at SDSU and will be coming back to join the business in spring. Natalie, Steven’s wife, does not yet help with the day-to-day farm operations. Kuecker said her focus on their kids allows him to put in the long days and nights during the busy season.

Kuecker said that replacing the original seed cleaning equipment allows the company to clean significantly greater amounts of soybeans than it did before. They have tripled their capacity, have upgraded equipment, installed overhead conveyers and have added bins with built-in sweeps, which reduces shovel time, all with an eye to efficiency. As a result, the company recently started providing custom seed treating for customers.

As he’s worked to continue the business his dad started, Kuecker admits that a lot of times he wishes his dad were still around to bounce ideas off of.

“I’ve tried to make the best decisions I can. You’re never sure if you have the right answers,” he said. “It’s easier now than back in 2004. I’ve been doing it long enough, so I remember the mistakes I’ve made, and know not to do it that way again.”

American Dictionary of the English Language

1. The substance, animal or vegetable, which nature prepares for the reproduction and conservation of the species. The seeds of plants are a deciduous part, containing the rudiments of a new vegetable. In some cases, the seeds costitute the fruit or valuable part of plants, as in the case of wheat and other esculent grain; sometimes the seeds are inclosed in fruit, as in apples and melons. When applied to animal matter, it has no plural.

2. That from which any thing springs; first principle; original; as the seeds of virtue or vice.

3. Principle of production.

Praise of great acts he scatters as a seed. Waller.

4. Progeny; offspring; children; descendants; as the seed of Abraham; the seed of David. In this sense, the word is applied to one person, or to any number collectively, and admits of the plural form; but rarely used in the plural.

5. Race; generation; birth.

Of mortal seed they were not held. Waller.

SEED, verb intransitive

1. To grow to maturity, so as to produce seed. Maiz will not seed in a cool climate.

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2. To shed the seed

SEED, verb transitive To sow; to sprinkle with seed which germinates and takes root.

Seed Rematriation with Becky Webster

Host Melissa Nelson sits down with Becky Webster, Oneida farmer, seedkeeper and attorney. Their conversation explores the challenges and joys of being a Native farmer, cultivating recently rematriated crops, navigating both market and trade economies, and more.

This episode is the third of three episodes focused on Seed Rematriation, and is a co-production of The Cultural Conservancy and Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance’s (NAFSA) Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN). These episodes are part of a collection of Seed Rematriation media that we have co-produced with NAFSA and Rowen White of ISKN.

This conversation was recorded on August 9, 2021.

“ Ukwakhwa means Our Foods, Where We Plant Things. So it’s more than just about planting seeds in the ground. It’s about planting these ideas in our community about reclaiming, who we are, reclaiming our relationships with our foods and our relationships with each other. ”

About Becky Webster

Dr. Rebecca Webster is an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Nation. She is a founding member of Ohe∙láku (among the cornstalks) a co-op of 10 Oneida families that grow 6 acres of traditional, heirloom corn together. She and her husband also own a 10 acre farmstead where they primarily grow Haudenosaunee varieties of corn, beans, and squash. Their philosophy is that every time an indigenous person plants a seed, that is an act of resistance, an assertion of sovereignty, and a reclamation of identity. With these goals in mind, an Oneida faithkeeper named their 10 acre homestead Ukwakhwa: Tsinu Niyukwayayʌthoslu (Our foods: Where we plant things). Based on their farming practices, they started a YouTube Channel called Ukwakhwa (Our Foods) where they share what they learned about planting, growing, harvesting, seed keeping, food preparation, food storage, as well as making traditional tools and crafts. Most recently, their family formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Ukwakhwa Inc., to help advance their goals of helping share knowledge with the community.

Additional Resources

Seed Rematriation fundraiser for Native American Food Sovereignty Association (NAFSA) and Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Seed Mother: Coming Home – this short film is part of the suite of Seed Rematriation media that we have co-produced with NAFSA, and which features Becky Webster and other seed keepers