Harvesting Pollen: Nothing to Sneeze At
A double-crop of forage and allergens offers an unusual synergy for this innovative producer.
By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Jason Dailey
There aren’t many farmers in North America who intentionally plant and nourish weeds on their farm. But Jim Sneed, who farms about 400 acres near Sedalia, Mo., is anything but conventional.
The 10-acre plot of ragweed he plants each year should be proof enough. That’s because Sneed is one of a small number of farmers across the U.S. and Canada who collects pollen from a variety of grasses, trees and weeds, and sells their harvest to pharmaceutical companies that turn the pollen into extracts for treating and testing of allergies.
Sneed is actually the second generation to manage the pollen collection business, having taken over from his late father, who began collecting pollen back in 1968. “It actually got started when a guy came through looking for somebody with a swather who could cut some fields for pollen,” he says. “However, by the time they got it hauled away and processed, the quality had deteriorated too much. So, Dad started harvesting the pollen himself and it just kind of grew from there.”
Today, Sneed and his wife, Stephanie, along with their youngest son, Jason, run their pollen collection business. However, even the Sneeds’ cattle herd is a little unconventional in this day and age of specialized beef breeds. Instead of raising Angus, Hereford or one of today’s popular crossbreeds, Sneed maintains a registered Shorthorn cattle herd that originates from British lineage brought over by his ancestors when they settled in Pettis County, Mo., in 1854.
Since that time, Jim has carefully selected breeding stock—avoiding the Irish lines of the breed as much as possible—to sustain the genetics that originated on the farm. Today, the family sells registered Shorthorn breeding stock in addition to market animals.
Surprisingly, the two businesses work very well together. Since small grains, clover and grasses are among the crops Sneed grows for pollen, they can all be harvested as hay or silage once the pollen has been collected.
“All total, there are about 50 different plants and trees from which we collect pollen,” he told us last summer. “Of course, we don’t harvest every type of pollen every year. We generally get a list of requests early in the year, so we have time to plant a particular crop if we need to. One of the requests for this next year is for Bermudagrass pollen, which is something we’ve never done before.”
By definition, an allergy is a heightened sensitivity to any foreign substance—called an allergen—that causes the body’s immune system to overreact when defending itself. While pollen is one of the most common culprits, allergens can also include dust mites, mold, food, latex, drugs, stinging insects, etc. Instead of only reacting when attacked by a harmful substance, such as bacteria, the immune system of an allergy sufferer reacts even when relatively harmless substances are present.
The severity of an allergic reaction can vary from mild discomfort to life threatening. Hence, a person who suffers from severe hay fever will often undergo immunotherapy, which calls for a series of small shots of pollen extract to help desensitize an overactive immune system.
Sneed, who prefers not to share many of his methods and innovations for fear of giving away too many hard-earned secrets, notes that pollen harvesting has little in common with growing corn or soybeans. For starters, there isn’t any equipment commercially available for pollen harvest.
Instead, Sneed designed and built two of his own machines. Employing a special vacuum and pollen collection system, one is a self-propelled machine used for grasses and weeds, while the other resembles a high-crop sprayer with row units.
Tree pollen, meanwhile, is collected with the aid of two bucket trucks. In a typical year, pollens are collected from varieties such as oak, hickory, walnut, cottonwood, mulberry and sycamore in the areas in and around Sedalia.
“With some tree pollens, you only have hours, rather than days, to hand-pick the pollen-bearing catkins,” he says, describing the slim, cylindrical clusters found on trees and certain shrubs during pollination. “The catkins are then brought back to the farm and placed in a greenhouse where they’ll drop the pollen on their own in a controlled environment, so we can vacuum it up from there.”
Even after the pollen is collected, there is still plenty of work to be done. Bags of pollen are first taken to Sneed’s on-farm laboratory, where the material is dried under controlled temperature and humidity, and cleaned via numerous passes through finer and finer sieves.
And Sneed is talking fine! Ragweed, for example, can produce more than a million grains of pollen per plant, per day—each about one-fourth the width of a human hair and covered with tiny spikes that help it hold on, for instance, when it reaches the nasal cavity of an allergy sufferer. Because of its size, such pollen can also remain airborne for days and travel hundreds of miles, affecting people well outside the area where it originates. It’s little wonder ragweed alone causes about half of all cases of pollen-associated allergic rhinitis in North America.
Once the pollen has been screened and sifted, often with the aid of more vacuuming, it goes to another room where Sneed checks the purity with a microscope. Assuming it passes the final check, it’s bottled in pint, quart or gallon jars for shipment. Just as it is with any crop, the weather and rainfall often affect the yield.
“In the meantime, we have to keep records for the FDA on everything from harvest date and time, to weather conditions, temperature and humidity,” says Sneed. “We also have audit visits from our buyers who will inspect and approve our facility to assure we are in compliance with standards set by FDA.
“In addition, we are required to maintain separate cleaning rooms within the lab for cleaning each species of pollen. In fact, it’s not unusual to spend more time cleaning pollen and filling out forms than harvesting the pollen itself.
“It’s not something we get rich off of,” Sneed concludes, noting that his wife also works off the farm to help pay bills. “And rainy days aren’t for going to the coffee shop. There’s always something else to do … whether it’s cleaning and screening pollen or working on equipment.”