The Birding Farmer: Growing Birdseed

I’ve been fascinated by birds since I was a young boy, and my very first 4H project was on Ohio birds.  I drew a specimen of each new bird we came across on early Saturday morning 4H bird walks.  Finding them in the wild, studying the way they look and move, the magical way it feels to catch a glimpse of something rare. I didn’t really want to do the project at first, and I walked away with what became a lifelong interest in birding. Figures.

Things didn’t come full circle until much later, in 2001, when I ended up living in Maine where a lot of my friends that liked to watch birds. They paid attention to the avian life around them in a way I’d never really seen people do before. They put out feeders, they’d keep logs of which birds came when. The birds they watched for were almost a part of the community, welcome guests that were long awaited and well met.

I couldn’t help but join in. I went and bought myself a feeder, and I filled it with a store bought mix of sunflower kernels and miscellaneous other seeds. We noticed that while much of the seed did get eaten, some of it the birds didn’t seem to like at all, and we started to dig into how seed mixes are made.

Beth Cole, a good friend and now my business partner, loved camping in the woods and listening to the sounds of birds.   Her late mother, Barb, was also a big influence on her birding hobby sharing her knowledge and love of bird watching.   Beth and I were talking one day and she asked if I could grow black oil sunflower seed – the main ingredient in almost all birdseed, a crop that I thought would grow pretty readily on the family farm in Ohio.

I have to admit, I was overconfident, I thought I could grow anything. So I said sure, let’s do it. And that’s how SchoolHouse Farms came to be!

I started growing sunflowers to feed birds. We started with two acres six years ago, and that’s blossomed (excuse the pun) into what will be over 300 acres next Spring.

What’s up with SchoolHouse Farms Birdseed?

But birdseed is not just the common black oil sunflower that you’re probably thinking of. It often includes white stripe sunflower, millet (red and white), cracked corn, milo (which is a terrible bird seed, even birds throw it on the ground, but it’s often used as filler to save costs), safflower, even hulled sunflower seeds, which removes the outer casing while leaving the kernel, generally leaving less mess in the yard.

I learned how to make bird seed by studying bird seed mixes we were already using, as well as looking at what birds liked and what they’d leave in the feeder or spill on the ground. As birders ourselves, we want to attract the biggest variety, so we pay close attention to what many different birds are interested in.

The secret to a wide variety of birds at your feeder?

Top quality mix. We call our premium mix “Berwick Blend”, named after the village in Maine where it all started. That’s a mixture of black oil sunflowers, white stripes sunflowers, sunflower kernels, white millet, crack corned, safflower, and now we actually add a little bit of soy oil into the mix because it really gives the whole blend a high fat content. I guarantee you birds will be bombing that feeder over anything else. With this mix, I’ve seen Cardinals, American Goldfinch, Nuthatches, Wrens, Chickadees, Blue Jays, Purple finches, Gross beaks, Bluebirds and Woodpeckers near our place in Maine.

The type of feeder you use can also affect what birds you attract. In Maine, I use a tube feeder- a clear plastic tube with pegs that birds can roost on and feed out of all around. Beth has four or five bird feeders; including platform and tray feeders. One secret? She likes to attract Baltimore Orioles with grape jelly and an oranges. Blue Jays, on the other hand, like the larger seeds and nuts so you want to feed them a larger sunflower seed, like white stripes sunflower seeds, or add in something like peanut pickouts.

Tips on Squirrel Proofing a Bird Feeder? 

You can try your best to make a squirrel-proof bird feeder, but it’s tough, those critters are whiley. There’s a fairly decent method that works where you put a PVC tube in the ground and then you put your tube inside of it and then it makes a barrier that’s harder for them to get around.

Being an engineer, my mind never stops working on how we could be doing more. We decided to experiment with growing safflower this year. Safflower is not common in Ohio, it’s more popular farther west in states like Utah and North Dakota. But I’m using it in my birdseed mix, so we knew we wanted it to be part of our farm in 2020.

What’s the Future of Birdseed?

While we’re still refining and perfecting our bird seed blends and grow methods, we’re also getting into pressing sunflower seeds for oil. Sunflowers grow the highest oil content per acre of any crop. The sunflowers we grow at Schoolhouse have upwards of about 48% oil content, which means almost half the weight or what I grow is oil, and high oleic sunflower oil (like we grow) is extremely healthy. We’re currently working with a partner to press our sunflower oil, but I’m excited to take on the challenge of doing it ourselves soon. I’m currently designing the extrusion head, which we’ll have machined locally.

As we get larger, we’re also working on a piece of equipment that will allow us to seamlessly create unique blends of birdseed, where we can dial up specific ratios of seeds, nuts and oils that can be used to attract different birds in different regions. Having that functionality would allow us to experiment with an even wider range of bird seeds, and really tailor the blend to attract the biggest range of birds.

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