For a variety of purposes, there are many people in Missouri and other states who are interested in growing native grasses and wildflowers on sizable tracts of land, both private and public.
Whether for the creation wildlife habitat or livestock forage, restoration of native habitat or even landscaping and beautification, such large-scale growth of native plants requires a whole lot of one basic thing: seeds.
For many years, a Texas County company has been in the business of meeting that need and providing that seed. Known since January 2009 as Hamilton Native Outpost (and formerly called Hamilton Seed), the company is headquartered on a 1,700-acre piece of land in Elk Creek that has been in Hamilton family hands for generations.
Owners Rex and Amy Hamilton began the business in 1981, growing, harvesting, cleaning and marketing seed of warm-season grasses, primarily for use creating livestock forage during the summer months when fescue more or less goes dormant. Then in the mid-80s, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and its efforts to help curb erosion, increased the demand for native grasses.
While out in the fields and the prairies harvesting those native grasses, the Hamiltons began to notice the wildflowers they were often surrounded by. They in turn began growing native flowers and harvested their first wildflower seeds by hand in 1987.
The idea for Hamilton Native Outpost (HNO) stemmed from Rex and Amy’s recognition of a need that was not being met. While both were working for the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (now called Natural Resources Conservation Service), they felt that a source more warm-season grasses would be beneficial in creating more summertime forage.
They began by harvesting on other peoples’ properties and the operation grew from there. Now HNO not only grows and harvests on hundreds of acres of land in Texas County, but also has agreements with landowners in many parts of Missouri and a significant amount of harvesting is done on their properties.
The company has over the years grown to where it now employs 10 people, including Rex and Amy’s daughters Elizabeth and Brooke, and their son Colt. Elizabeth acts as sales manager during the winter and spring, and gets out in the fields doing harvesting during summer and fall months.
“There’s a bunch of us that it keeps busy and off the streets,” she said. “We spend a lot of days on the road harvesting; it takes us all over the state.”
While combines are used for harvesting fields around headquarters, they’re not practical to take on the road and wouldn’t fit through many landowners’ gates, anyway. That’s where a machine called a seed stripper comes in. It incorporates a rotating brush, much like a street sweeper brush – that more or less sweeps the seed back into a compartment. The seed stripper can attach to the front of a tractor, so it’s compact enough that a standard gooseneck trailer is all that’s needed for road trips. When full, it can be hoisted and unloaded into a storage trailer.
“It’s a really portable system,” Elizabeth said. “We can go out to a prairie with one truck and a 20-foot gooseneck trailer and do our harvest.”
Some of the native flowers and grasses grown and harvested by HNO are familiar to most Missourians, such as coneflower and Big Blue Stem grass. Others are less common, such as rattlesnake master.
But regardless of shape, size, color or familiarity, every plant HNO deals with is 100-percent Show-Me State variety.
“If it’s a grass or flower native to Missouri, we probably grow it,” Elizabeth said.
The storerooms at HNO are stacked with large bags of many kinds of seed, called “mega-bags.” Most of that stored seed eventually ends up being shipped within a geographic range that features a climate similar to where it originated.
“Most of what we do is in Missouri and the surrounding states, and to the east some as well,” Elizabeth said. “The climate changes to the west and it’s a lot drier, and what we have here doesn’t like it that dry. The same goes for what they have there; it wouldn’t like it here – or it doesn’t persist very well in our climate because we get too much rainfall.”
The restoration end of what HNO does is popular among landowners interested in making their property resemble what it was like before it was altered by European settlers and “progress.”
“In the southwest part of the state there would have been a lot of prairies, or treeless expanses,” Elizabeth said. “Around here, my understanding is that there were less of the dense forests we have now and more of the open woodlands, or even savannahs. Some people want to restore those.”
Creation or restoration of wildlife habitat is also pretty big business, as more and more landowners gain interest in attracting deer, turkey, quail and other species.
“The native plants are of course what those animals lived on before the white man showed up,” Elizabeth said. “So it makes for good wildlife habitat.”
Much of the wildflower seed HNO harvests ends up in mixes of 10 or so species. The mixture is frequently used by landowners who are paid (through CRP funding) to grow native species rather than crops. The wildflowers, also called “forbs,” are a significant aspect of prairie restoration being done in northern Missouri and other areas.
“It’s not a big deal down here, but in areas where there are a lot of crops they will pay a farmer to keep land in permanent vegetation for wildlife habitat,” Elizabeth said. “A lot of native seed goes toward that.”
HNO headquarters includes a large building that houses numerous machines involved in the seed-cleaning operation that was built about five years ago to replace another that burned down. Another building at the site is equipped with a large, climate controlled storage room in which mega bags are kept, and a shipping station where orders are processed and fulfilled.
Jo Ann Emerson, U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 8th congressional district, paid a visit to HNO a couple of weeks ago.
“We took her on a tour of the seed cleaning operation,” Elizabeth said. “She thought it was complicated and a bit overwhelming, which it is. By the explanations we give, it’s kind of hard to follow the flow of things.”
Currently, HNO is heavily involved in harvesting. The bulk of the company’s selling and shipping takes place in the spring, when landowners begin getting outside again.
Each year in June, Hamilton Native Outpost hosts its “Day With Natives” field day, when many visitor enjoy the scenery created by acres of blooming wildflowers. Appointments can also be made for group or individual visits.
•Rex and Amy Hamilton, owners, CEOs, production and personnelmanagers.
•Joe Dixon, office manager, takes care of the day-to-day officeactivities and keeps everyone in line and organized.
•Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of Rex and Amy, works in theoffice as sales manager during winter and spring, can be found inthe field harvesting seed during summer and fall.
•Mike Motzkus, manager of seed processing and also heavilyinvolved with harvest at headquarters. “Lucky for us, Mike can fixnearly anything we break.”
•Colt Hamilton, son of Rex and Amy, manages the livestockoperation and is involved in seed production, harvest, andprocessing.
•Brooke Hamilton, of Grindstone Design Studio, daughter of Rexand Amy, responsible for the look of the company catalog andwebsite. Also taken many of the photographs of the plants andlandscapes at HNO.
•Mark Klatt, bird and plant enthusiast, resident storyteller andwisdom provider.
•Brian Cope, responsible for the rogueing crew, groundsmaintenance, and is involved in seed harvest, processing, andbag-ups.
•Loren Steele, oversees the near-impossible task of organizingthe shop and is involved in seed harvest, processing, and bag-upsas well.