A Rare Book Describing the Seed Business in the 1930s
If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you know I enjoy agricultural history. All facets interest me, but hybrid corn development and the seed industry are fascinating topics. Hybrid corn is considered one of the greatest advancements in American agriculture with early beginnings around 1901. Yields of open pollinated corn were limited from the 1860s through the early 1900s but hybrid vigor quickly released the genetic potential of corn (Zea mays) and yields improved substantially and quickly with successful breeding programs sprouting up all over the Midwest region. The growing and selling of hybrid seed to farmers became a “business” proposition in the 1920s and several companies formed or expanded as a result.
One such brand that came into prominence was Kingscrost Hybrid Seed Corn, a part of Northrup, King & Co. which had roots in flower and garden seeds back to the 1880s. Headquartered in Minneapolis, MN, their focus was primarily on early maturity corn hybrids in the 90-to-110-day maturity range (a reference to the approximate number of days for the seed to reach physiological maturity). They were competing with companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dekalb (De Kalb), Funks Brothers, Pfister and others.
There is an abundance of books, manuals, sales literature, and other items that can be found describing the science and business of hybrid corn. For a recent review I encourage you to visit Terry Daynard’s blog on the brief history of the hybrid corn industry (tdaynard.com). Most of the books he cites are out of print but still available with some patient searching of auction sites and bookseller websites.
Given all these materials, few, if any, tell the story from beginning to end of a how a seed company grew and marketed their seed. That’s what makes this Kingscrost book remarkable. In my 20+ years in the seed business, I’ve seen only one other manual similar, but it wasn’t as complete or thorough. This book describes the general science and field principles behind the breeding, includes black and white photos showing them in practice and then provides the marketing/sales pages that a seed representative can use to promote the hybrids. (My guess is that it was put together as a training resource.) The last section of the book gives more thorough explanations of the various aspects presented throughout. Ironically, most of the basic principles and terminology described are still in use today, 80+ years after its publication.
It is a large book with board covers, contains 100 pages and measures 9 x 12 inches. I’ve added some additional notes in the beginning to give context and specifics on how I put this together and a look at some sales items at the back to give an idea of what the farmer experienced. If possible, browse it in a 2-page viewing format as I laid the pages out as they appeared in the book.
My goal is to share this so that students, teachers and ag enthusiasts, in general, can enjoy this aspect of agricultural history. Download a copy and share the link with others!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
Here is the 1963 seed catalog of Pioneer Hybrids. It was mailed to growers in a plastic mailing bag with an overall size of 6.5 inches by 9 inches. There’s a cover letter from Garst & Thomas (distributors of Pioneer seed back then) dated 1962 but the catalog actually has descriptions of products for 1963. This is due to the fact that seed is typically sold in the fall after harvest of the current year but picked up and planted the following spring.
Along with the catalog and cover letter is an information card and a plastic bag that measures 14 inches tall by 20 inches wide. The bag has a colorful farm scene printed on it and was meant to store stuff in it or even be used for freezing foods. I’ve had several folks share with me that their mom often filled this bag with baked goods and sent it off to college with them. But being a prized possession, they were instructed not to return home without it!
Of course, the catalog is important. The bag was a customer give-away that was very practical for home use but the catalog had the information growers wanted. It highlights the current hybrids that are proven as well as new hybrids that a grower might want to try on a few of his acres. You’ll find “good rules” for growing corn and sorghum on the inside back cover. Notice point 9 where the use of DDT granules is recommended for control of corn borers! (For folks not familiar, DDT was banned decades ago as a known carcinogen.)
Finally, the pages that most likely were studied more than any other in the catalog are pages 9 and 12. These are the charts that show all of the hybrids for sale in the region and various characteristics. This is where growers can see the relative maturities and whether the hybrids have the agronomic characteristics they need for their farm. Still today, these charts prompt growers to call their sales representative and ask about hybrids they’re not planting.
For an historical perspective, download the scanned items and catalog and make a side-by-side comparison with modern catalogs (younger growers will enjoy this exercise). I find it interesting to see how descriptive language has changed for the physical makeup of hybrids and agronomic characteristics. For example, “stiffness of stalks” in 1963 is now “stalk strength” in 2020. And “length of shank” is not used anymore, at least not by Pioneer.
A parting thought – like hybrids over the years, communication styles have certainly changed. In 1963, who would have thought anyone would be “blogging” about their Pioneer catalog in 2020?
I want you to do well. ~ph
P.S. Having worked in the seed business for a little over 20 years, I’ve observed seed companies transition from printed catalogs to digital catalogs and then actually do both in an attempt to reach as many people as possible on different platforms. The current thinking is that the younger generation of agricultural producers strictly use their “smart devices” (i.e., smart phones and tablets) to gather information. However, owing to the fact that a high percentage of a producers are over the age of 55, there’s still a need for printed material as this generation is mostly not interested in smart devices and navigating the internet.
An Essay on the Rise and Fall of Hybrids in the Seed Business
Since the beginning of hybrid corn development in the early 1900s, breeders have made step changes in product performance. (A step change is where the new hybrid is not just a little better than the previous generation of products but so much better that growers will demand only that hybrid.) These changes might encompass significant improvements in disease tolerance, lodging or insect resistance and of course, yield. Sometimes the step change is extraordinary. The seed industry has seen this over the years where a hybrid performs at such a high level that it takes traditional breeding programs literally years, sometimes decades, to catch up to it. Pioneer Hi-Bred has a wonderful history of these, most notable being corn hybrid Pioneer® brand 3394 (early 1990s) and sorghum hybrid Pioneer® brand 84G62 (late 1990s).
Understandably, growers can become emotionally attached to these extraordinary hybrids. After all, their success is tied to the performance of the products they plant. Yes, it’s mostly yield that drives this success, but not just yield in one year – yield across multiple years. In the seed industry, we describe a hybrid that yields consistently over time and across environments as “stable.” As an experienced agronomist with over 20 years of experience, stable hybrids are few and far between. These are the hybrids that growers request for many years knowing that the hybrid will perform and that they won’t have to worry about whether the latest and greatest new product will let them down. In a business that’s often “year to year,” this stability is often welcomed. It’s peace of mind.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which side of the ledger you’re on, stability is not always the driving factor in selling hybrids. It’s no secret that seed companies will literally introduce and drop a hybrid after only one year. This speaks to the rapid improvements in breeding science but also the drive for yield and financial success in a very competitive market place. So, hybrids that are stable – meaning, not always winning the yield contest but certainly above average – are not always in demand. This makes life difficult for a seed company in deciding what to grow for the next selling season.
After harvest, a seed company must decide what hybrids to produce the following summer in order to have the seed supply needed for their customers to plant in the spring more than a year later. To do this, they must predict what hybrids their customers will likely buy for the following year. But growers often base their purchase decisions on the current year’s performance and don’t always consider previous years. Weather plays a key role in product performance but no two years are alike and the best hybrid this year might not be the best next year. As you might imagine, it’s very difficult to predict which hybrids will perform best when you don’t know what the weather will bring! Given this, stability seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?
The complexity of growing hybrid seed is nearly overwhelming. Below is an example of a corn hybrid that’s widely adapted (image courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred) that literally has 221 variations. For this hybrid, there are nine versions of trait offerings for various market opportunities. A few examples include a “conventional” version – no traits for the organic market; an herbicide tolerant version – no insect traits but needed for refuge acres and a below-ground insect protection version for areas with known corn rootworm pressure. Next are seed treatments – various rates of insecticide, formulations, active ingredients, etc. Then there are several packaging options of which the most common are boxes and bags but imagine various sizes of these units to accommodate field research needs. My personal favorite is the last tier which is seed size – rounds and flats of which there are small, medium and large. Depending on the hybrid, there can also be extra small and extra large. Today’s high-tech planters can often be fickle about seed size. Take my word for it, you can have all the right genetics, traits, seed treatments and packaging but if you don’t have the right seed size for the planter, you can lose the sale! Seed size is mostly determined by genetics but can be manipulated to a certain degree by management. Historically, hybrids have been dropped because they consistently produced seed that was either too small or too large.
This complexity in seed offerings for the grower has value. A seed company is a business and assigns a cost to every one of the 221 variations in this example. It must do this to keep track of production costs and understand what “value” each variation contributes to the overall picture. So, what happens when a hybrid doesn’t perform to expectations and growers decide to move on? Demand drops and now the cost of producing these variations starts to increase. (Imagine growing seed based on demand that fizzles for one reason or another – you now have a bunch of processed seed sitting in storage that nobody wants.) Again, this is a business. Just as every company assigns a cost to each variation, they also assign a threshold cost where it doesn’t make sense to continue producing it.
As you observe sales of seed over time, you’ll notice that all hybrids have a “lifecycle.” If they make the cut after the first year, sales grow for a time (they’re new and exciting), then stabilize (above-average but starting to fall behind), then drop (stable yield but just simply getting left behind by newer genetics). Not long after the final stage, they are no longer produced. The decision to drop a hybrid is not easy. Typically, near the end of a hybrid’s lifecycle, production acres (the production fields where the male and female inbreds are grown to produce the hybrid seed) become more difficult to manage (small acreage needed at this point) and variability in production per acre tends to go up. Thus, production costs also go up.
Finally, regional differences (a hybrid does well in one area but not others) can often accelerate a product’s lifecycle. This, honestly, is the demise of most hybrids in the industry. When a hybrid is widely adapted – grown on a lot of acres by a lot of producers – the production process is more efficient and frankly, more profitable. But when demand drops quickly, as might be the case when a large growing area completely walks away from a hybrid, a decision to keep producing that hybrid must be evaluated even knowing that it might still be one of the best performers in other areas of the country.
The seed business is complex, business-driven and very emotional. Emotions around a hybrid can be strong as growers gain an affinity for something that feels like family. Livelihoods thrive on the success of hybrid seed production and seed company employees often feel equally emotional at the loss of hybrids. Given all of this, there’s an axiom about the seed business that I often share with customers: “Don’t fall in love with this hybrid. There’s a good chance it’ll be gone next year.”
Earlier in my career I once shared with a colleague that I had 10 years of experience. He asked, ” is that 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times?” His response caused me to pause and I certainly had to stop and think about just what I had learned over those years. Was I basically on a “rinse and repeat” cycle or, more importantly, did I waste time and basically rest on my laurels?
After that I decided that whenever I felt like I was “repeating” myself that I would step up and do something different so that the next year was mostly a new experience. Too, it was important that I find creative ways to share that experience with my farmers and sales team. Sure, it’s corn, sorghum and cotton, year after year. You know, rinse and repeat. While the weather may differ, they all basically grow the same year after year. So what’s interesting or new about that? If you’re an agronomist – everything!
I just returned from our company’s annual agronomy meeting (you might have noticed me on Twitter cowering under the sub-zero temperatures) and was surrounded by the largest agronomy team any seed company has in the world. From all over North America, over 300 agronomists shared research findings, teaching methods, and an infectious enthusiasm for the food and fiber our farmers produce. You may not realize it but while you might see only field agronomists like myself at your local meetings and such, behind the scenes are production agronomists who are responsible for thousands of seed production acres. They’re mostly taken for granted but they are a key reason why our seed has the highest quality tolerances in the industry.
Drone technology, satellite imagery, photometry, seed treatment technology, and how to possibly plant seed at 17 mph were all on the agenda (that’s not a typo, Ohio State researchers were pushing the limits of down force!). Of all the topics, my personal favorite was understanding the differences in corn and soybean root morphology. It was an amazing look at rooting depth, volume, growth behavior and the basic differences in nutrient and water uptake. We often hear that size matters but there’s something called a root:shoot ratio and it really does matter!
Every year at that meeting I’m humbled and reminded that there are a lot of passionate, smart people in our industry. I was surrounded mostly by agronomists but there are sales reps and company personnel that are equally passionate with nearly all possessing knowledge and experience that can help improve your position in life as a farmer. My advice is to reach out and take advantage of that. It’s included in the price of the seed. Don’t “rinse and repeat” and expect it all to be different.
Part I of this series showed that having confidence in the results of a plot matters. It’s asking an awful lot of a 5 or 10-acre strip plot to represent hybrid selection across hundreds or thousands of acres. When seed companies use this method they rely on dozens to hundreds of them to understand how different environments impact hybrid performance. This is commonly referred to as GxE, or genetics by environment. But not every grower manages their crops the same so having different locations introduces another factor – management (M). Now we have a GxExM interaction and you can quickly see how the whole picture of product performance can get muddled (e.g. one grower may apply fungicide or late season nitrogen while another doesn’t). That’s why quality data for an individual plot are critical. The data are important to you for your farm but also think of it as a data link in a decision chain.
Are there other ways of evaluating hybrids? Sure. I personally prefer large strips of 5 or more acres for each individual hybrid being tested. But, the yield has to be checked with a weigh wagon or a calibrated yield monitoring system. Using yield maps is fine as long as the data are of good quality. So what are sources of error that can impact plot results? Here are a few:
Harvest ruts can impact next year’s yield but what happens when a plot entry is planted in this affected area while the others are not?
Hybrids planted in the pinch rows (see Plots Suck, Part I).
Plot planted last, long after most acres were planted.
Placing the plot in a part of the field that results in an entry being planted in an undesirable spot that clearly impacts yield (e.g. an entry happens to be planted in a low spot).
Supplied seed has different seed sizes and no adjustments are made resulting in different stands across the plot.
Sprayer runs over or “leans over” some of the rows of a single entry but not the same number across all entries in the plot.
It’s not possible to eliminate every source of error. Remember, the goal is to have each entry in the plot treated equally and to walk away at the end of harvest with a high degree of confidence that the results are correct. When we achieve this we can say, “that plot didn’t suck.”