Jim Hunzeker, left, receives the MCIA Premier Seedsman award from MCIA chairman of the board, Duane Dahlman.Submitted photo
Jim Hunzeker, left, receives the MCIA Premier Seedsman award from MCIA chairman of the board, Duane Dahlman.

Submitted photo
"At the end of life, if a person can look back and see that the world is a better place because of what they have done, then they have been a positive asset to the world," remarked Jim Hunzeker of Spring Grove.

"I try to live this way, and I think what we (Shooting Star Native Seeds) have done with native seeds was the right thing and has made a positive impact on the world."

Hunzeker was recalling the journey that he and his partners have been on with the native seeds industry for the past 30 years.

He was recently recognized with the Premier Seedsman Award at the 2013 annual meeting of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) for this long-term commitment to the production and promotion of high-quality certified native seeds.

The journey began in 1976 when Hunzeker joined his cousin, Howard Deters, farming hogs, corn and beans.

A couple years later, Deters' brother-in-law, Jim Henzler, who was managing a local nursery, mentioned that he would have a market for blue grass sod.

"Howard and I talked about it and decided that, 'Heck we were farmers, we could do that,'" commented Hunzeker.

So they seeded five acres. They encountered obstacles along the way for harvesting and delivering it, but they met those challenges and succeeded. Sodko was born.

The company continued to diversify as they saw a need that needed to be met. They were laying sod in newly constructed highway ditches, which led to doing highway seeding and mulching as a way to market their hay. They also started working with erosion control. Each step led to the next.

Their experience led to a project doing turf establishment on some new Mississippi River islands for the Army Corps of Engineers. They needed native seeds for the project, which they had lined up to come from a supplier.

Unfortunately, the supplier didn't come through with the seeds, and Sodko wasn't able to do the job as specified.

They were nervous as to how this would affect them. However, it turned out OK because the Corps of Engineers realized the situation was unique due to production, and they made adjustments for species and quantities.

As Hunzeker and Deters had done other times in their journey, they saw an opportunity and decided to pursue it. They didn't want to be in a situation again where their seed supplier didn't follow through, and it appeared that there was a market for native seeds.

They once again thought, "Heck, we are farmers, we can do that," and Shooting Star Native Seeds was born.

Patience was key as Shooting Star grew and developed. The harvesting and production of native seeds is not a quick turnaround; it takes about 10 years from a hand collection of a local ecotype seed to the product in a bag.

"Research has shown that the plants that grow best in an area are those that could be found there originally, which makes sense," Hunzeker said.

"It has been a challenge to get native species accepted as a viable option for plantings, as other seed companies were so ingrained in the industry."

Through time and persistence, natives are now accepted as viable options for plantings. Shooting Star has received recognition for the "Best Native Restoration Jobs" for the states of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

"Looking back, I believe that getting native seed accepted was the result of doing successful native installs," added Hunzeker.

As a member of the MCIA Native Seed Committee, Hunzeker assisted in the development of standards used for MCIA's native seed program.

This program, called the Yellow Tag program, documents the genetic origin of native seeds. The history of the seed is traced back to its original site.

Shooting Star has continued to grow as a producer of native seeds and also as a supplier. They recently built a warehouse that has three different climate controlled areas, a seed mixing area, a receiving area, a grass warehouse and a flower seed room.

In 2009, the parent company, Sodko, formed three corporations - Sodko Turf (bluegrass sod), Sodko, Inc. (turn establishment and erosion control) and Shooting Star Native Seeds (producer and supplier of native seeds).

"I am honored to have received this award, but I couldn't have done it without many others," remarked Hunzeker.

"My partners, Howard Deters and Mark Udstuen, have had a big part in helping make Shooting Star a premier producer and supplier of native seeds in the Midwest.

"We've got excellent employees in the office, too. And the late Bob Jacobson from MnDOT and Ben Lange from MCIA helped tremendously getting natives accepted in the industry. Together we all made this happen."

Hunzeker lives in Spring Grove with his wife of 34 years, Darla. Together they have four adult children, Jessica (Chris) Strinmoen, Travis (Steph), Tyler, and Kyle, as well as three grandchildren.

To learn more about Shooting Star Native Seeds, visit its website, www.shootingstarnativeseed.com.