October 18, 2008
A field of ragweed would send allergy sufferers running, but it’s just another day at the office for Jim and Stephanie Sneed.
As pollen collectors, the Sneeds own and operate Ashland Farm Botanicals Inc. on their rural Sedalia farm on Griessen Road. The craft of pollen collection is a mixture of agriculture and science.
“There’s something you learn all the time,” Stephanie, 52, said.
The Sneeds collect pollen from 50 different species of grasses, weeds and trees from timothy grass and fescue to ragweed and cottonwood trees. They sell the pollens to six pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe. The companies use the pollens to make allergy shots.
The Sneeds are among one or two other pollen collectors in the state. They are unsure how many pollen collectors there are nationwide.
“It’s kind of a niche field,” Jim, 55, said. “We can overdo the market ourselves.”
The Sneeds took over the business when Jim’s father, John, retired but Jim has collected pollen since he was 12.
Jim’s family happened upon the business at a time when farmers were faced with either growing into a bigger operation or finding an alternative to the small family farms. A crew of pollen collectors from Oklahoma City asked to use the Sneeds’ row mower to harvest the ragweed. The crew would collect it here and take the plants to Oklahoma City, ruining some that got too hot during the transport in the process.
Eventually, John Sneed decided to take up pollen collection on his own.
Since there are few in the pollen collection trade, the Sneeds have engineered their own equipment and techniques, such as using tree lines as a windshield to keep the pollen from blowing away. Jim has developed a field vacuum to collect grasses. He prefers to keep the details of the machine a secret, as it has yet to be patented.
The vacuum equipment isn’t the only thing a little different about the farm. The Sneeds also have a lab where they dry, filter and sift the pollen until it is pure. Drying is important because molds can grow quickly if it’s done improperly.
They use a microscope to detect any impurities in the pollen.
“We constantly have to look at each sample,” Stephanie said.
The Sneeds had a bumper crop of ragweed this year. They collect three kinds of ragweed. About 20 acres of ragweed produced 25 gallons pure or nearly pure pollen. The Sneeds collected every day for about two weeks.
“We got more this year than we’ve ever gotten,” Jim said.
This year’s harvests are a stark contrast to last year, which was poor because of an early freeze. The Sneeds had very little tree pollen last year.
They attempted to plant and grow weeds, but found nature works the best. They do plant ragweed, Johnson grass, wheat, oats and wild oats. The Sneeds collect pollen from cottonwood, ash, oak, hickory, elm, hackberry, mulberry and pecan trees on their farm and property throughout the county belonging to friends and family.
The pollen collection season starts in February and ends with ragweed in the fall.
“We start looking intently at the trees and gauging the elms in February,” Stephanie said.
Tree pollination season is the Sneeds’ busiest. Jim uses a bucket truck to retrieve the pollen from trees in a labor intensive process, as each catkin must be handpicked.
“You work from sun up to sun down in a bucket truck all day,” Jim said.
The catkins are placed in the greenhouse where the pollen sloughs off onto a sheet of paper. Then the catkins are removed and the pollen is vacuumed off the paper.
Jim has a knack for knowing just when the timing is right to collect. Stephanie says it’s almost like he senses it.
“You have to pick them at just the right time, or they disperse on their own,” he said.
The peak time to harvest pollen can vary based on moisture and other factors. But, Jim said the harvests happen within a two-week period during the same time every year. Some species are very predictable. Ragweed season starts in mid-August.
“I can set the clock on giant ragweed,” Jim said.
The trees appear to hold onto the pollen until the wind is just right, and then releases it to pollinate others, Jim said.
“It’s really a miracle in and of itself,” Stephanie said.
The Sneeds, who also have a small herd of cattle, are unsure year-to-year who their buyers will be, as they have to submit bids to get the job. Even when a contract is awarded, it’s no guarantee. After the pollen is sent the company, it can still be returned to the Sneeds if it doesn’t meet certain standards.
A lot of people who used to collect pollen have retired, some in part because of an increase in government regulations. Federal Drug Administration regulations require the pollen to be 99.5 percent pure. It also demands strict record keeping of each pollen lot, including temperature records during the drying process, a press plant of each species, photographs of trees used in collection and the GPS coordinate of each tree.
Stephanie spends a lot of time documenting to meet the regulations, but the couple said they don’t mind.
“It’s a good thing because it assures them of the quality,” Stephanie said.