Selling to Farmers (De Kalb, 1939) – The Book

One of the most intriguing books I own is Selling to Farmers by Larry Williams, published in 1939. It is relatively small in size, hardbound with green boards and features the De Kalb winged ear of corn on the cover. (Yes, “De Kalb,” not “Dekalb.”) The De Kalb County Agricultural Association was founded around 1918 and was the grass roots foundation of the Dekalb seed company.

Several requests have come in from folks looking to find this book. I’m not aware of any reprints but the link below is a copy provided by @dror_sharon (Twitter) who graciously offered to scan the book and create a PDF file to share with others. It takes time and effort to do this – his contribution to the seed industry and agricultural and literary communities, in general, is much appreciated. Thank you, Dror!

The book was a training manual for new sales representatives. In context, the “sales rep” was a farmer who was managing his own farm but also represented the De kalb seed brand. He grew the hybrids on his own land and used his experiences (testimonials) to sell seed to neighbors. But the behavior required to become an effective seed professional was not common knowledge, in my opinion. Sure, there were reps from equipment companies and other suppliers that they interacted with. But until the adoption of hybrid corn seed, most folks saved their own open-pollinated seed for future plantings. They didn’t really interact with seed company personnel or have any experience with the selling process of hybrid seed. The late 1930s was the advent and growth of seed sellers across the Midwest and other regions. This book, then, was a presentation of the behavior and practices needed to be successful.

While certainly dated (descriptions of social norms throughout the text, for example), the principles are still sound 80 years later. Throughout, there are several discussions of behavior that are based simply on treating people with courtesy and respect. For me, they are good reminders of how much better I can be as a seed professional and, more importantly, as a person.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Selling to Farmers: His Opinions and Convictions

(One of the most intriguing books I own is Selling to Farmers by Larry Williams, published in 1939. It is relatively small in size, hardbound with green boards and features the De Kalb ear of corn on the cover. Yes, “De Kalb.” Not “Dekalb.” The De Kalb County Agricultural Association was founded around 1918 and was the grass roots foundation of the Dekalb seed company (today a brand of seed owned by Bayer). This is one of a series of posts featuring its contents.)

A training manual for sellers of De Kalb seed. It’s contents are still relevant today.

“His Opinions and Convictions” is from the first chapter of this training book and focuses on the farmer – his customs, buying power and habits, hobbies and pride, needs and the general nature of his business.

His Opinions and Convictions

“The farmer has spent much time alone riding down long rows of corn, working in fields alone many hours of the day. And, he has had much time to think. It is to be expected, then, that this man has formed opinions of some kind on practically every subject. His opinions may be wrong, but they are his opinions and he expects other people to respect those opinions. He will fight for his opinions, but he is easily swayed by suggestions, however bullheaded he may be in an argument.

This business of being alone and thinking alone makes him a particularly friendly and sociable person when the opportunity presents itself to make friends or to meet people.”

Whether it’s 1939 or 2020, farmers still spend long days alone in a tractor…thinking and forming opinions.

Yes, times have changed. Today’s farmers still spend much time alone riding down long rows, albeit at much faster speeds than in 1939. But higher speeds and increased efficiency have resulted in farms becoming much larger and I would guess that the typical farmer still spends as much time alone in the field as they did back in the good ‘ole days. (There’s probably a published research paper on this very concept. I’ll have to look.)

The section simply points to the fact we are free people with opinions that are to be respected. As it says, their opinions may be wrong. They could be based on actual experience as in “I tried their hybrids for several years and they never worked on my farm,” or based on what they hear from the neighbors as in “white cob hybrids are hard to thresh,” even though he’s never grown them on his farm. My advice is to never argue about matters that are not specific to the business at hand. No doubt you are correct in your position but differences of opinion can cause customers to avoid buying from you. My English mother always said, “never discuss politics, sex or religion except with family or close friends.”

Finally, the part about how working alone makes them particularly friendly is spot on. I also think it has to do with the fact that rural communities are spread out and folks just don’t encounter many people during the day. Regardless, when I visit folks, either from “just passing through,” or by appointment, I’ve rarely come across a farmer that wasn’t friendly and didn’t want to visit. Honestly, I can’t remember ever being turned away when asking to ride along in the combine.

To summarize, the customer is not always right… but please respect their opinions AND respect their time…don’t take advantage of their friendliness.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Selling to Farmers: Age

“Age Has Little to do with Success, Time Has Much”

(One of the most intriguing books I own is Selling to Farmers by Larry Williams, published in 1939. It is relatively small in size, hardbound with green boards and features the De Kalb ear of corn on the cover. Yes, “De Kalb.” Not “Dekalb.” The De Kalb County Agricultural Association was founded around 1918 and was the grass roots foundation of the Dekalb seed company (today a brand of seed owned by Bayer). This is one of a series of posts featuring its contents.)

A training manual for sellers of De Kalb seed. It’s contents are still relevant today.

The following text is provided in its entirety. It’s from Chapter 10 that focuses on planning for success. Yes, “men” or “man” are used solely throughout. It was 1939, after all..

Age Has Little to do with Success, Time Has Much

“The outstanding success of men past sixty in science, art and commerce is proof to all of the opportunities and chances for all men to make good, regardless of age. Indeed, in the sales field the best men of many firms are past fort-five. So, youth with its energy and age with its wisdom start even in the selling field and battle for fame and fortune where both are theirs for a price.

The all-important requisite is the deep-seated desire to sell. The art of selling is always to conceal the art. Practice teaches both young and old that influencing without apparent influence makes sales and dollars as well as friends for them.

How well is the value of the service or product established in your mind? This value is the thing you are to get others to enjoy. You are out to give values, not to take anything away from your prospect. Then tell me, in a business of getting others to share in values you know are great, what has age to do with the program? You are charged with the task of getting others to believe and visualize benefits which they may enjoy. You can be as adept at age 25 or at age 65 as your understanding and ability will permit. You are not too young at age 25 to show proof and value, and impress others with benefits. Nor can a man of 65 find age a handicap in bringing others to take advantage of values he can prove are there if they will but accept them. Vision and planning for success are both keen in men who love life, regardless of age.

Let the young man who feels his youth a handicap try stressing values and increasing enthusiasm about his product and he will find youth and asset and people will admire his enterprise and help him on toward success. The same thing works for the older man, for the moment people notice his vigorous drive for business they respond with a desire to see a man with such pep succeed.”

Yes, 81 years ago, all ages of salesmen could be motivated to impart values on customers. And what I really like about this section is that it appreciates the energy of youth and wisdom of old and their roles in selling to farmers. I’ve often been the oldest member of a sales team and always enjoyed the younger teammates. No, they don’t have my experience, but eventually they will because they have a drive to succeed. Often, the willpower to overcome deficiencies and gain experience is all that’s needed to thrive in this business.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Seed Corn Prices of 1947

A trip back in time gives us this glimpse of a promotional mailer from the Reist Seed Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Costing the company 2 cents to mail, it’s basically a simple fold of a card-stock quality of paper with black ink and a red seal. Nothing special. And it includes the actual seed prices. That kind of information today, in the year 2020, is a guarded secret. Competitive intel like that, especially if discovered early in the sales season, causes marketing specialists to drool on themselves. This particular one is dated August 15th. Announcing prices in August would be extraordinarily early for any of today’s seed corn companies.

“Free” cotton bags (1 bushel capacity) were an enticement. Certainly reusable and environmentally friendly.

Notice that both open pollinated varieties and hybrids were available, but at a price difference of roughly $3 per bushel sack of seed. It was well established by the mid-1940s that significant yield increases could be realized planting hybrid seed. Perhaps the adoption curve was not quite as strong in some regions so both types were still offered after WWII. Also of interest is the availability of “early husking” varieties (this would likely include existing hybrids that have the characteristics that make an ear of corn suitable for hand husking, such as high ear placement, excellent standability and loose husks).

Lastly, the offering of formaldehyde and tobacco dust can not go unnoticed. These types of “pesticides” seem foreign today but are unique to an era that was growing by leaps and bounds in the post-war era and did so without much government oversight. I must admit, however, that I have no idea how one applies tobacco dust!

So many folks came before us. In reverence, I always find it fascinating to look back and study the progression of technology.

I want you to do well. ~ph

The Art of Cherry Picking

Folks who sell seed corn for a living often get excited about sharing photos or actual specimens of their products – for example, ears of a new corn hybrid. Some braggadocio is expected but any grower with experience knows they are NOT showing off the average ear. In a survey of 1,000 growers, I would guess that 999 would scoff at an ear sample or ear photo presented to them by a seeds salesman believing it to be typical of any field environment (the 1 true believer likely being a family relative). They know full well that the sales person walked into the field, scouted around for an abnormally large ear, and then brought it out proclaiming it the savior of corn production ills across the fruited plains.

Hey, we’re a competitive bunch! The competition does it all the time and we’re not going to just stand by and let it go. If they post a photo of 22 rows around, then, by God, we’ll post one with 24. Test weight of 62, you say? How about my hybrid that went 63 in the plot? This one-upsmanship can get a little annoying but in small doses keeps it interesting. In large doses, you’re just being a used car salesman and nobody’s interested. Building excitement and creating momentum is part of sales. We want customers, existing and prospects, to notice and hopefully ask about the very products we’re bragging about.

22 around is not uncommon but the 26 that the competitor found was likely brought in from another state.

One of the key principles in seedsmanship is representing products honestly. Is cherry picking ears dishonest? Maybe in the purest sense, but most seedsmen (male and female) know that it’s okay when presented with context. The ear with 22 rows and 60 kernels per row that magically appeared after just a few minutes in a corn field will always be met with skepticism and an eye roll. But when you admit that you picked the best you could find, most folks take the ear sample to represent its genetic potential. That’s right – if the environment is just right, a lot of ears could look like this. Experience shows that his type of presentation can generate a lot of interest from growers. Keep it exciting but keep it honest!

The photographer of this ear collection, @wardynmi, shared with growers that he chose the largest ears.

In the ear collection photo above, the author shared with readers that he chose the largest ears of each hybrid. The experienced eye can’t help but be impressed. Image 35,000 of these ears per acre? If that were the case, yields would probably eclipse 400 bu/a. But imagine if he collected the smallest ears he could find. If the largest ears represent genetic potential then what do the smallest ones represent? You got it – the genetic potential to be small. The combination of small, medium and large ears in a field is what a grower harvests. That’s the reality of fields with varying soil types. Agronomists make a living trying to minimize the number of small ears and maximize the number of large ones.

A service call necessitates collecting ears that represent the field in question – the good and the bad ones.

Salesmanship is one thing. Sales support is another. Service calls are part of the business. Growers may send you pictures or bring you ears of corn and perhaps a complaint about performance. While the seedsman can be criticized for cherry picking, in a way, so can the grower. Often in my career, a customer has brought ears that were cherry picked to exaggerate the field condition. This is somewhat understandable as poor product performance can be emotional and will certainly have a negative impact on profitability. But in all my years of working in the seed industry, the field is rarely as bad as the ears that were presented to me. But they did get my attention – which is what cherry picking is all about!

I want you to do well. ~ph

2020-21 Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Catalog

It may not have the same feeling as the arrival of the Sears Catalog back in the old days, but the 2020-21 Pioneer Hi-Bred catalog has just been published. Different from yesteryear, this catalog comes to you digitally – as a PDF file. The print version will still be available for those that prefer to sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a pair of reader glasses and leisurely browse through the newest hybrids and varieties. The PDF version provided below is great for use on smart devices where you can zoom in to see the small print and digitally “flip” through the pages. (Note: this catalog version is for South, Central and North Texas and Oklahoma.)

A sea of Pioneer Hi-Bred sorghum. Sorghum prices are up! Prepared to plant more?

I know, having a seed catalog available in August seems early. The thing is, for those of us further to the south, planting begins as early as January and grain harvest is nearly over by August. So, with plot results and field data fresh at hand, reviewing and talking about what to plant next year in late August and September is not unreasonable.

Nearly everything is here in this catalog – Corn (grain and silage), soybeans, sorghum (grain and forage), alfalfa, sunflowers, inoculants and seed treatments. Even the major crop protection products offered by Corteva Agriscience are included. Twenty pages of full bliss from an all-American company!

Side-by-side plots are the best sources for hybrid comparison data.

For students of salesmanship and marketing, I encourage you to compare the 2020 catalog to the 1946 catalog that I highlighted a few blogs ago. The formatting, photos, vernacular, etc. are quite different. Publishing styles and technologies have certainly changed over nearly 75 years – along with prices and yield.

It won’t be long before your sales representative visits again. Study the new catalog before he or she arrives. Be prepared – have your farm data available with field by field summaries if possible. Yield data from local plots may also be helpful and can be viewed at Pioneer.com (no, we don’t win them all). And don’t be afraid to ask for input from the Pioneer agronomist. Rumor has it that they’re very knowledgeable.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Corn Rootworms in Central Texas

(Note: I’m an agronomist working across the fruited plains of Oklahoma and down through north, central and south Texas. This blog is specific to that geography.)

Corn, specifically continuous corn (monoculture), is predominantly found throughout central Texas. These acres can host two major corn rootworm species: Mexican Corn Rootworms and Southern Corn Rootworms. Other areas tend to have more crops in rotation – sorghum and cotton to the south and pasture and alfalfa to the north – and have fewer incidents of crop damage from rootworms. Yes, wheat is grown throughout the region and can break the lifecycle if taken to grain but likely not if planted back to corn after being cut for wheatlage/silage (which is done primarily in the dairy-concentrated area around Stephenville, TX.)

The main rootworm specie that causes the most damage is the Mexican Corn Rootworm (MCRW). Without adequate control, it can cause significant economic damage nearly every year that corn is grown continuously. Yield damage can be as much as 40 bu/a or more and is manifested in lodged, stressed plants and reduced ear size. Fortunately for growers, insecticidal Bt traits control this pest. In the absence of traits, planter-based insecticide applications and some seed treatments can provide control, albeit sometimes limited under high pest pressure. Growers can easily scout for adult beetles around pollination time and assess potential damage for the following year’s crop. (I know, I know, it’s hot that time of year and nobody wants to be in corn field when it’s over 100 degrees. Trust me on this, it’s worth it!)

The other rootworm specie that can cause damage is the Southern Corn Rootworm (SCRW). While the MCRW can be an annual pest, SCRW might be a problem one in only seven or eight years. Unlike the MCRW, outbreaks can not be predicted since it has so many hosts and overwinters as an adult rather than as larvae. The thing to remember about SCRW is that no commercially available Bt traits in 2020 have any effect on them. The primary form of control is insecticidal seed treatments.

Unfortunately, having a name in common with the other rootworm species makes it easy to think that plant-based Bt traits should control the SCRW but it is an exception that can be an absolute thorn in a grower’s side. It can be expensive to add seed treatments. Sure enough, the year the grower decides not to spend the money on controlling SCRW, there’s an outbreak and replant is needed in several fields, resulting in added expense and potentially reduced yields. UGH!

There are several websites, extension publications, seed industry articles, etc. on these pests. Should you like more information or have other questions, don’t hesitate to holler at me at peter.hill@pioneer.com.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Hybrid Corn Adoption in Greene County, Iowa

Going through some files I came across a summary that I had put together about the adoption rate of hybrid corn in Greene County, Iowa. It was based on a survey of growers that asked about the factors that influenced them to use hybrid seed (versus saved seed from open pollinated plants) and how long it took for them to plant it on all their acres.

This summary is adapted from a 1943 article, The Diffusion of Hybrid Seed Corn in Two Iowa Communities and was published in Rural Sociology by authors B. Ryan and N. Gross. Here are their basic findings:

  • The authors surveyed 257 farmers to explore how they first learned about hybrid corn, the sources from which they gathered information about the merits and performance of hybrid seed and how long it took for them to adopt it on 100% of their acreage.
  • On average, it took approximately five years to adopt hybrid corn after first learning of it.  After first using it on the farm, it took only about three years to adopt it on 100% of their acreage.
  • The farmers “original” knowledge, or awareness, of hybrid corn came primarily from salesmen (49% of the farmers cited salesmen),  neighbors (14.6%), Farm Journal magazine (10.7%), radio advertising (10.3%), relatives (3.5%) and the Extension Service (2.8%).
  • The farmers “most influential” source for causing them to plant hybrid corn were the neighbors (45.5% citing them as most influential) with salesmen a relatively close second (32.0%).  All other sources registered less than 7%.
  • 80% of the adoption of hybrid corn occurred in approx. 5 years, from 1933 to 1939 (see figure below).

Very few technologies in any sector of life see an adoption rate like this. It is quite remarkable, really. Similar acceptance was seen with specific biotech traits in plants but readers will be hard pressed to list many others, especially in agriculture. Horses to tractors? Nitrogen fertilizer usage after WWII? Atrazine or 2,4-D in the 1950s or 1960s? Wouldn’t it be fun to sit down with Dad or Grandpa and hear about what they experienced?

There are countless books and articles in the public domain about hybrid corn. The people, the seed, the science – it’s all out there for the curious to consume. Enjoy!

I want you to do well. ~ph

Seed Corn Production

Hybrid corn is the result of a cross of inbred parents – a male that provides the pollen and the female that produces silks and ultimately the ear. The ear is then processed through a series of steps in large seed production plants. For North America, most of the production fields are scattered throughout three or four states in the Midwest region. This is done to allow handling of large volumes of various hybrids and to spread out risk associated with damaging weather events.

The technologies involved in this process are fascinating and complex and have evolved over time. For brands like Pioneer and Dekalb, sales have increased substantially since they entered the business in the 1920s – from a few dozen bushel sacks of seed in the beginning to several million bags and boxes in North America alone. When you consider that hybrid seed production can be much less than half of commercial grain production, you realize the scale in acres and processing that are needed to source farmers their seed for planting season.

80,000 kernel count bags (“80K units”) have been the standard for years. Large boxes that can hold up to 50 units are also used for large capacity planters.

Because of the Midwestern location of most production fields and processing plants, most growers across the south and southwest have never seen a seed production plant or the processes involved. The production plants can be very large and use sophisticated scheduling and throughput strategies to ensure efficiency but yet with a final goal of producing high quality seed. It is never lost on production plant employees that seed is a living organism. It has to be handled in a way that allows growers to plant it five or more months later with the expectation of near perfect germination and growth.

A modern Pioneer Hi-Bred seed production plant in Iowa (2019).

Pioneer Hi-Bred (Corteva AgriScience) has created an animation (see below) that shows the steps involved in processing hybrid seed corn. Different from commercial corn grain production, hybrid seed corn is harvested on the ear, complete with husk (similar to sweet corn) with grain moisture that is often over 40 percent. Special harvesters load trucks with whole ears and the trucks then transport them to the processing plant. After a myriad of processes, high quality seed is bagged or boxed and stored in refrigeration. There, it awaits a customer order after which it’s shipped to the seed dealership or direct to the farm.

An animated overview of a how seed corn is processed. Courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred, Corteva AgriScience.

Obviously there’s a great deal of expense and expertise involved. Pioneer Hi-Bred holds several patents for processes and machinery that are highly specialized. It’s a source of pride knowing that very few issues arise due to seed quality issues. Production goals are high with seed germination almost always in the mid to high 90s (percent of seed that germinates) for seed corn. Of course, the environment in which the seed is planted can have a significant impact on germination and early season growth, but Pioneer Hi-Bred has done everything it can up to that point to ensure success.

I want you to do well. ~ph

1946 Pioneer Seed Catalog

(I enjoy history, especially that of the seed industry. Every once in a while I will scan a catalog and offer up a .PDF version for your enjoyment.)

Stepping back in time, here’s the seed catalog for the year following the end of World War II.  You’ll find on page 2 (inside of the cover page), the mention of William Landgren.  I thought it was very kind and professional of Pioneer to include the name of a staff member who was still serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  While folks at home were taking care of business, so too were William and thousands of others that served.  I’m proud that they chose to include him in the catalog.

The 1946 Pioneer catalog was 7-1/2″ wide by 10″ tall and contained 16 pages (covers included)

When William returned to Pioneer, it was the beginning of a grand era of American agriculture.  New advancements in farm equipment, pesticides and other inputs were exciting as resources that were severely limited for wartime support were now made available for public consumption.  Rubber tires and steel are good examples of this.  The economy boomed as did seed sales to support the return to full time farming.

The seed catalogs from the 1940s and 50s (other companies included) are some of my favorites. Almost all included images of full-size ears so that customers could see the shape and quality of the seed. Throughout the 1940s, corn was still being husked by hand so farmers were still interested in ear shape and husk cover. Modern catalogs might include pictures of field scenes but rarely will they include images of ears. Lets be honest, seed companies today sell dozens of hybrids and there just isn’t room. We have to leave enough space for other stuff – replant policies, digital resources, sales program information, seed treatments, insect and herbicide traits, research advancements, etc. Also, we sell more than corn; there’s also sorghum, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, canola, alfalfa and silage inoculants. Unless we want to return to the days of the Sears catalog, you can understand why catalogs have evolved into a series of tables and charts. Websites and social media platforms are where you find the images. (Are you familiar with @Pioneeragronomo on Twitter?)

Check out the characteristics table on pages 8 and 9. Most notable is the “EARS PER STALK” row in the bottom section of the table. Optimum populations for hybrid corn in the 1940s was between 15,000 to 19,000 plants per acre. For at least 75 years, hybrid corn has almost always produced just one ear on the stalk. Hybrids 322 and 355 sometimes put on two! Remember, also, that the common row spacing back then was 40 inches.

Characteristics that are a priority to growers change over the years. Notice the emphasis on mechanical picking which was being adopted rapidly after World War II.

What’s refreshing throughout this catalog is the upfront honesty in describing the hybrids. For hybrid 373, “occasionally subject to stalk breaking in late fall… For hybrid 379, “occasionally root lodges.” A sales representative today practicing good seedsmanship will inform customers of potential weaknesses but almost no company will say it directly in print. (Rather, you can infer a product weakness by looking at the ratings.) Know this – many a customer will show loyalty to a brand and to their local sales rep that continues to support their well being by providing sound, honest knowledge of the products.

Another notable mention in this catalog is that of corn rootworms. In the lower left corner of page 6 that describes hybrid 353-A, there’s a picture of Karl Jarvis, pathologist, standing by a “valuable” plant that withstood severe corn rootworm conditions. I’ve never really thought about how long the Corn Belt region has had to battle this pest. Evidently, it’s been a very long time! It’s an interesting pest that now infests cropland across a large area of North America and more recently Europe.

Finally, folks are sometimes surprised at just how long replant policies have been provided by seed companies (see the back cover of the catalog). Frankly, they’ve been offered almost from the beginning of hybrid seed sales – either as part of a competitive strategy or out of kindness and understanding of how brutal Mother Nature can sometimes be. Over time, customers have come to appreciate this policy as replanting can be very expensive and stressful, to say the least.

Feel free to share this catalog with others and enjoy the history behind one of the oldest brands in American agriculture – Pioneer Hi-Bred.

I want you to do well. ~ph