Native seed innovator Ernst honored by Penn State, Atlantic Seed Association

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Calvin Ernst, founder and president of Ernst Conservation Seeds, was recently honored for a lifetime of contributions to the native seed industry by the Atlantic Seed Association (ASA) and Penn State University during separate events. Ernst is a POWA supporting member.

On Oct. 10, ASA president Stephanie Breckenridge presented Ernst with the 2014 Honorary Member Award in recognition of his dedicated service to the Atlantic Seed Association and the seed industry. The award was presented during a tour of Ernst Conservation Seeds by members of the ASA during its 62nd Annual Convention. Breckenridge cited Ernst’s 50-plus years of innovative and entrepreneurial spirit with regards to agribusiness, his success producing and selling plant seeds into new markets, and his company’s commitment to collecting and propagating native plant species that benefit the ecological function of the areas in which they are used.

Breckenridge, who is also Ernst Conservation Seeds’ sales and inventory manager, remarked, “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man. His character determines the character of the organization.’ And on that fitting note, we would like to add one more feather to Calvin’s trademark hat by honoring him as the Atlantic Seed Association’s 2014 Honorary Member.”

On Oct. 17, Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences named Ernst a 2014 Outstanding Alumnus. The award recognizes alumni for their achievements and provides opportunities for recipients to interact with the college’s faculty, students and other alumni. He and three other Outstanding Alumni awardees were presented their awards during a special recognition event in University Park, Pennsylvania on Monday, Oct. 20.

Ernst graduated from Penn State in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural bioscience. That year, he learned of an opportunity to provide the legume crownvetch to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) for highway median vegetation and erosion control. He convinced his father to set aside five acres of the family’s farm so he could grow the crop and harvest the seed for PennDOT. The next spring, he and his brother Luther planted an additional 60 acres that were eventually sold to Stanford Seed. In 1964, Ernst founded Ernst Crownvetch Farms. The farm grew crownvetch seeds, plugs and propagules that were used by numerous highway departments and other agencies for erosion control and roadside beautification.

Recognizing a decline in the crownvetch market and the ecological merits of a shift to native seeds, Ernst introduced native deertongue as his company’s first native plant seed in the late 1980s, and found a market for it primarily in strip mine reclamation projects. Within a few short years, he shifted almost his entire product offering to native plant seeds, and soon changed the name of his company to Ernst Conservation Seeds. The company soon began specializing in custom mixes for wetland mitigation, restoration and wildlife habitat. It later added bioengineering – or live plant materials – for stream bank restoration and other uses.

What began as five acres now includes nearly 10,000 acres of native grasses and wildflowers comprising approximately 400 native and naturalized species for seed production and limited live plant sales. The majority of acreage is located in northwestern Pennsylvania, though the company owns additional farm land in Florida, and has cooperative growing relationships in Maryland, North Carolina and Oregon. Its products are sold to conservation organizations, landscape architects, reclamation/restoration contractors, government agencies and private landowners throughout the United States and abroad. Ernst and his company continue a mission to identify and locate native species with restoration and conservation value that can be cultivated into mass production.

Ernst has received numerous honors from his peers throughout his career, including the American Agriculturist Master Farmer award in 2008, the Governor Raymond P. Shafer Distinguished Service to the Community Award in 2007 and the USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Program Special Service Award in 2004. He is a member of several trade, professional and conservation organizations.

For more information, visit or call (814) 336-2404.