Breathe Easy

Collecting pollen for pharmaceutical company ALK helps allergy sufferers worldwide.

Products mentioned in this article: M Series SP Windrowers

“You kind of have to go through a reverse thinking; how do we grow this weed instead of how do we kill it?”

As Local Collection Supervisor for

ALK, an international pharmaceutical company based in Denmark, Julian Helmke oversees ALK’s Source Materials operation near Plummer, Idaho. The 600 acre (243 ha) operation is responsible for collecting pollen from a wide range of common allergy inducing plants. 

“Our company has been a leader in allergy diagnosis and treatment since the 1920s,” says Helmke. “The pollens we collect here are then used in the treatment of allergies via immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is decreasing sensitivity to allergens that after leads to lasting relief from allergy symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunotherapy.”

For Helmke and the other employees at the Plummer farm (their offices are located in nearby Post Falls), it’s highly rewarding work.

“Even though this is a farming operation, we all remain aware that what we do here plays an important part in helping people overcome their allergies. It’s always nice to come to work and enjoy your job, but it means even more when you know that you are making a difference in the world. There are even some people within our own facility who are benefiting from ALK’s products.”

Altogether the operation collects pollen from over 30 different species of grasses, flowers and weeds such as meadow foxtail, Kentucky bluegrass, canola, dandelion and Russian thistle. The largest pollen crop they collect is from Timothy-grass, for which they have hundreds of acres allocated, but they also have a few acres devoted to birch trees, which also produce allergic reactions in many people.

As you might imagine, harvesting a crop that can be as small as a few microns across is an exacting and specialized business.

“We have several different methods we use to harvest pollen,” says Helmke. “Our preferred method for species that pollinate heavily, such as Timothy, is to drive large tractors through the fields during pollination season with vacuums mounted on the front of them.”

“For grasses that we only grow on a small scale, we use hand sickles to cut the grass before it pollinates, and then place it in water to continue the plant’s life cycle through the pollination period. This allows us to conduct collection in a controlled environment.”

The third method, typically used for trees, requires the flowering or pollen bearing portion of the plant to be removed to a desiccation environment where the plant can be dried until the pollen is ready for removal.

To help preserve the product and maintain potency levels once it is collected, the pollen is stored in freezers until it is needed by ALK, or an order is placed by a customer. The required amount is then transferred to the facility in Post Falls for further processing and shipment.

Working with pollen in such high concentrations is not without its hazards, and equipment operators are required to wear respirators, and workers are requested to be gowned whenever prudent. Dedicated uniforms are even provided to the workers that perform the pollen collection, so they don’t contaminate their clothing and possibly expose family members and others to the potential allergens.

“We try to enforce as much protective equipment as we can and it can be uncomfortable when it gets very hot,” says Helmke. 

Helmke’s team faces unique differences compared to typical farmers. For example, many of their “harvests” occur not in the summer or fall, but in the spring when the plants are in bloom. Here, timing is critical as many of the plants they farm have a fairly narrow bloom window. 

“With most of these grasses you will have a progression of bloom that can last over multiple days, depending on the weather. If it is really warm the bloom can be sped up, and cool weather can slow it down. A major rain or hail can also affect the yield.”

Adding to the harvest stress is that many of these plants are blooming within days of each other. That can lead to contamination during the collection process if more than one type of plant is blooming in a field at the same time. ALK however, takes special precautions to ensure materials are segregated and cross-contamination does not occur.

“Mostly we try to avoid that by timing the blooms of our crops. That is probably our best tool. Even with that, coordinating pollen collection between the various crops can still be somewhat complicated in terms of logistics and having personnel available.”

Another thing they must watch carefully is their use of herbicide or other pesticides during the growing process. Because they are producing a product for pharmaceutical application, it is critical that trace chemicals be kept to a minimum.

“One of the main differences between a regular farm operation and ours is that we are bound by EPA regulations on the concentration of chemicals that we can use on our crops. To ensure the safety of the patient we perform a lot of additional testing over what a typical farmer would to show that there is no residual herbicide or other pesticide inside our final product,” says Anthony Bratsch, PhD, Agricultural Specialist.

“In fact, we grow several of our crops organically simply because there are no EPA registrations to spray on those crops. This is especially the case with several of the weed species that we grow where there are simply no registered herbicide or other pesticide that we can use.”

Compounding the challenge in this bizarre, upside-down world of farming where weeds are the crop, is the lack of agricultural best-practices for the ALK team to follow for many of its crops. 

“With weed pollens, you kind of have to go through a reverse thinking; how do we grow this weed instead of how do we kill it?”

Helmke says that it is essentially like growing a new crop from start to finish, applying normal agronomic practices every step of the way. 

“We consider all the things that regular farmers consider: irrigation, fertility, pests and diseases. Using wheat as a cover crop we’ve discovered that we can increase our ragweed yields, so now we are looking at varying densities of the wheat crop and how that affects germination. We’re also looking at varying the fertility levels of the wheat, trying to lessen the wheat competition in favour of the ragweed.”

Thankfully, the ALK team doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel with all of the plant types it farms. With crops like canola, corn and Timothy-grass, regular farming practices can generally be followed. The same is true when it comes time to knock down the crops at the end of the season, when regular harvesting practices can also be applied.

“After we have collected the pollen from our timothy crop it is grown to maturity and harvested. We then sell our hay, which is great for us because we also reap the benefits of additional revenue from a second crop.”

To cut their Timothy, the ALK team recently sold their old swather and bought a new MacDon® M205 Self-Propelled Windrower with a 16’ (4.9 m) R85 Rotary Disc Header.

“Our old sickle swather just wasn’t cutting it anymore. In coming to MacDon® we’re looking to double our speed and cut our hay harvesting time in half. With our old sickle head we were cutting at 4.5 to 5 mph (7.2-8.1 km/h), but when we tested the MacDon® we were doing 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h) through the field. The R85 disc blades should also be a lot better for getting underneath the grass than our old sickle style,” says Pollen Technician Nick Sandahl.

While the ALK team has yet to do much harvesting with their new MacDon® M205, they are none-the-less very pleased with their decision.

“There’s a lot that we like about it. First, the cab is a lot more comfortable and quiet. It’s also easier to drive on the road, because you can turn the seat around. The ability for us to just switch out a blade in the event of a cut failure or maintenance issue is also big. Finally, we haven’t had a lot of maintenance issues with it. With our old one (competitor model) it seemed like every week we would have to put two or three hydraulic seals in.”

In addition to these immediate benefits, Helmke says there were other reasons they came over to MacDon®.

“Not only does MacDon® have a lot higher rating than the competition, they also beat everyone in price by quite a bit. Plus, a lot of the guys around here already run MacDon® windrowers, and even the shop where we buy our equipment recommended them. For us it was a really easy decision.”