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Thune lauds Bridgewater's NST Labs

U.S. Sen. John Thune, left, visits with Kevin Stahl, president of NSL Labs, during a tour of the seed lab Wednesday afternoon in Bridgewater. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

BRIDGEWATER -- In an effort to see some of the state's small businesses, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., visited a seed-testing lab Wednesday in Bridgewater and highlighted the success it has brought to the community.

NST Labs owner and president Kevin Stahl showed Thune around for about 45 minutes Wednesday morning, displaying some of the methods that have made the lab a go-to testing facility for clients across the country. Stahl's business has about 2,500 different species of seed on hand. Five employees test germination levels for customers.

Thune said a business like NST Labs is a good example of what businesses can do when they're in a small town setting and taking advantage of skills that South Dakotans already have in their repertoire.

"It's perfect," Thune said. "It's so fitting for what we do and what we have out here in terms of the economy. It's really a neat story."

Stahl said the bulk of the work pertains to testing seeds for native grasses in North America. A map on the wall at the business office shows its clients stretch from Oregon to Maryland, totalling more than 50 consistent customers. It has previously done work for Australian and Canadian customers. One of the largest clients is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, testing what seeds will work for grasses on federal reclamation projects. Other examples are testing grasses for road construction projects and Conservation Reserve Program work. The testing is targeted at making sure the seed is clean, grows and germinates in a desired climate.

A Bridgewater native, Stahl, 36, started the business in 2006 with colleague Tim Matthaei. They worked together at a seed lab in Brookings. Stahl did some testing for friends, who urged him to start his own business.

Both Stahl and Matthaei are registered seed technologists, two of about 130 nationwide. The name of the company has been shortened from Native Seed Testing because the company wanted to focus on native plants, as opposed to some of the turf grasses and sorghum testing the company started out with.

"This is one of the businesses where you need to find your niche," Stahl said. "We've been able to find that.

Thune walked through the company's climate controlled rooms where seeds grow for about two to three weeks. He also checked out seeds through a microscope, where he could see dissected seed embryos that were dyed with a red substance to monitor their hardiness.

"This is some really cool stuff," Thune told employees following the tour.

Stahl said it was an honor to show the senator around.

"We're pretty modest, so this is pretty neat," Stahl said.

Thune commonly takes examples of South Dakota businesses to his colleagues in the Senate to show how small businesses work in rural areas.

"It is sometimes tough to grasp, particularly for those who come from areas with big populations centers," Thune said.

When it comes to small businesses, Thune said success comes from an idea and passionate workers who bring it to reality. Thune said that's the case at NST Labs.

"To keep some of our smaller communities vibrant, you have to have young people who are willing to invest and put their time, energy and treasure back into the community. That's what these guys have done here," Thune said. "I think you need a real conviction about keeping your town a vibrant place, a commitment to an idea and a work ethic to make it happen."