Tiger Lily Seeds: A Micro-Enterprise with a Big Impact

Tiger Lily Seeds is a micro-enterprise in the business of growing prairie wetland wild flowers and harvesting their high-value seeds. The enterprise’s principal, Brittany Romine, harvested her first crop of seeds in the autumn of 2012 and successfully sold them to Applied Ecological Services, an international distributor of rare native seeds based in Brodhead, Wisconsin.

Brittany’s harvest success was built upon the opportunities generated by a grant to Movin' Out administered by Dane County Department of Human Services. The seed production enterprise is an offshoot of the creation of Elven Sted, an affirmatively inclusive multi-family rental housing development on the Yahara River bank in the City of Stoughton. Because of its riverside location, Elven Sted was required to install a retention ditch to grab storm water before it seeped into the river. Movin' Out developer, Dave Porterfield, upgraded the retention ditch to a rain garden by altering the landscape plan to include thousands of wild flowers and grasses. In researching the varieties of wild flower choices available, the development team learned that the rain garden environment was ideal for the propagation of varieties that produce high-value seeds. These varieties are precious because of their unique beauty and the necessity to harvest the seeds by hand, requiring much more time and labor than mechanical harvesting methods.

The grant funds enabled Movin' Out to sub-contract with Madison Environmental Group (MEG) to research the business potential of a seed-growing enterprise. MEG researched the wild flower business, conducted a feasibility study, assessed the market for high value seeds, and generated a detailed business plan. From here, another sub-contractor, Progressive Community Services (PCS) examined the plan and adapted it to become a micro-enterprise business opportunity for a person with a disability. With the help of teachers in the Stoughton High School special education program, the “rain garden team” identified Brittany as someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, a love of plants, a talent for gardening, and a preference to work on her own.

PCS micro-enterprise specialist, Shannel Trudeau-Yancey, lined up the funding and vocational resources Brittany needed to launch her business. A key resource for Brittany is Corrine Daniels, president of Applied Ecological Services. Corrine provided invaluable technical assistance to Brittany and her team, contributed plant stock, and helped perfect Brittany’s business plan, knowledge, and skills. Corrine’s business also buys Brittany’s harvested seeds, after confirming the seeds’ genetic purity and quality. Brittany used the vocational resources administered by Dane County Human Services to hire a work assistant who joined Brittany in the planting of thousands of flowers and helped her guide the work. Brittany’s support broker, Pat Fields, engaged Americorps volunteers to assist in the planting and also in some much needed river bank clean-up.

Brittany’s mother, Andrea Romine, fueled the confidence and spirit needed to succeed and kept Brittany and her team focused on success and the opportunities to celebrate at each stage along the way. Andrea also facilitated the certification of Tiger Lily Seeds and the Elven Sted rain garden as an official Monarch butterfly way station.

The City of Stoughton has also been a steady partner with Tiger Lily Seeds. Movin' Out deeded the portion of land that includes the rain garden to the City of Stoughton Parks Department. The City and Tiger Lily Seeds have an agreement endorsed by the Common Council that empowers Brittany to grow and harvest seeds on this city land. The city’s future plans include a river path that will increase the visibility of the rain garden and Brittany’s work there.

Tiger Lily Seeds has inspired other seed harvesting opportunities for volunteers with disabilities. The following organizations have seed-collecting activities and have said they welcome the participation of volunteers with disabilities: Audubon Society, Troy Gardens, Holy Wisdom Monastery, Swamp Lovers’ Foundation, the Prairie Enthusiasts, Go Biologic/Adaptive Restoration, Folklore Village, Southwest WI Grassland and Stream Conservation Area, Rock Ridge Cooperative, and the UW-Madison Arboretum.

The Tiger Lily Seeds story has been shared in several venues including presentations at the Chicago Wilderness Conference and the national Sustainability and Energy Efficiency Conference. The Stoughton Courier Hub had a front-page story featuring Brittany and Tiger Lily Seeds. Brittany is consulting with the City of Stoughton about other water retention sites or greenways nearby that may be good locations for the expansion of her business. Movin' Out is undertaking another multi-family housing development in Brodhead, home town of Applied Ecological Services, and plans an economic development element that could include enterprises like Tiger Lily Seeds or other ventures with potential partnership with Applied Ecological Services and other local businesses.

Kathryne Auerback