Planting the seed: Seed companies provide information, support for farmers and ranchers
Seed is an interesting business that impacts everyone in one way or another. “Almost everyday you either touch a seed, eat a seed, or you may just have a seed get caught in your pants leg,” says Don Hijar, who is the owner of Pawnee Buttes Seed in Greeley, Colo. “Trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers. All of them are producing seed all the time. That seed is blown everywhere or washed and carried away by animals and humans. There are all kinds of seed being produced all the time, but the challenge is in determining what kind of seed we want for what purpose.”
As sole owner of Pawnee Buttes Seed for over 20 years, Hijar has learned a lot about the seed business. The company currently sells seed for more than 500 species of grasses and flowers, as well as shrubs and wetlands seed. Most of it is grown in the western United States, from Kansas City to the West Coast, and from Canada to the Mexican border. The seed is shipped to Greeley, where it is collected and made into seed packages that are shipped out to customers all over the US, as well as other countries.
It’s a challenge managing 500 types of seed. “We try to know where all those different species grow. We don’t just sell Kentucky Bluegrass to everyone who wants to plant grass. We sell the right species for the project,” Hijar says. If a rancher is planting irrigated grass, they may want a different variety than a municipality looking to conserve water, he says.
Customer feedback and the market drive these companies in the direction they need to go. “When I started answering the phones exclusively for Tug of War Seed in 2014, Timothy was not a grass that was in demand,” says Eric Engh, the director of marketing, sales manager, and executive vice president of Tug of War Seeds in New Plymouth, Idaho. “Now the world has discovered how extraordinary Timothy is, so we sell a lot more of it than we used to. It is all driven by our customers and the feedback we have received from them over the years.”
Engh says his company has been in business for over 30 years, in one aspect or another. They started in the bee business pollinating fields. From there, they progressed to the wholesale end of alfalfa, and then retail. In addition to alfalfa, they also sell grass seed and corn. Most of the seed is grown locally, although some is grown in the northwest, or with Canadian suppliers. “We used to grow all our own seed, but we became so large, we had to have outside sources. We deal on a premium seed basis only,” Engh says.
Some companies are large enough they can create different divisions, and employ experts in each of those areas to help customers. Millborn Seeds, which is headquartered in Brookings, South Dakota, and has a western location in Rapid City, supplies customers with specialty seed products ranging from native grasses and wildflowers to small grains.
Millborn Seeds forage and cover crops specialist, Matt Metzger, says they have a forage and cover crops division, which consists of hay, pasture, alfalfa, small grains, and cover crops that directly relate to the livestock industry. The conservation and wildlife division handles native grasses, CRP and government programs, as well as customers who want to plant acres back to native habitat or food plots for wildlife. The commercial and turf division handles small scale residential land seeding, large scale pipeline reclamation, and roadside seedings. “Within all those divisions, we are pretty diverse. We follow the demand in each respective division, and make our decisions based on the products we need to carry to meet those demands and stay in tune with those different industries,” Metzger says.
A shift is taking place in agriculture, and the way acres have traditionally been used. A lot of customers are not in production agriculture. “Anybody disturbing the earth’s surface is a potential customer of ours,” Hijar says. “Since I live along the Front Range in Colorado, I see a lot of people moving here. We have a lot of small acreage people, and from there it’s from A to Z. Our customers vary from someone working on an oil rig to doctors, lawyers, or professors. We sell them all seed for their property that might be anything from two acres to 150 acres. We may call them small acreages, but the big thing is they aren’t agriculturists, farmers or producers. They may just have a piece of ground where they want to run a few horses, cows, pigs, goats or chickens. We work with a lot of people like that,” Hijar says.
Other customers are government entities like the Forest Service, BLM, or the Department of Defense. They also work with people who want to buy turf grass for golf courses or sports complexes. “Land mass is not just farmers and ranchers, it’s really any entity that owns or manages land,” Hijar says.
When a customer calls, Metzger says they have to work through some basic questions to determine how to offer the best advice. Some of Metzger’s customers have questions about how to make their operations more sustainable, whether it’s by implementing cover crops or utilizing annual forages to incorporate livestock into their operation. In the conservation area, the questions are different. Customers may want to know what type of food plot to plant for a targeted game animal or what seed mix could be put together to plant a portion of land to native habitat, he says.
The questions may differ depending upon the piece of land, Engh says. Some customers want to know the seeding rate or how many pounds to put on per acre. Others are concerned about increasing production on an older field, or what the person who referred them to the company is doing and all their farming practices, Engh says. “If they ask that, they’ve seen the field and they’ve seen the success, so they want to do exactly what they did.”
No matter who the customer is, the seed salesmen all agree they want a positive outcome so their customers are satisfied. “We don’t just sell quality seed, as much as we confirm the direction the customer is headed. I want to be a partner from a distance as much as I can,” Engh says. “If a farmer calls and asks for a certain seed that I don’t feel is right for them, unless they give me enough information to change my mind, I will decline the sale. I’ve always felt that when a salesperson, who makes their living selling seed, tells you they don’t want you to put that seed in the ground, it is a pretty strong statement. I don’t live in their hometown, so if I sell them seed because they ask for it, even though I know it isn’t right, at harvest they will also know it isn’t right. Then they will tell people for 50 miles around that it isn’t right, and I don’t have the opportunity to explain myself. We just don’t do business that way. It is a build up of trust and communication,” Engh says.