It used to be that competition made it hard for one seed company to dominate. No longer. Here are old seed sacks collected at the Minnesota state fair.
Photo: Ardent Eye

When I was a boy growing up here outside of Langdon, everything on the farm belonged to my family.

At about the age of ten, Dad taught me how to raise hogs. The sows we grew from Hampshire gilts were ours. So was the alfalfa field where we grew hay and hog pasture. Planted to Vernal (a public variety), it was where piglets played and slept in the warm summer sun. The wheat field we harvested later that summer was planted to Gage, another public variety. We harvested that wheat in July, then sold some for seed and some for grain. Dad saved seed for next years crop, and Mother cooked a little into breakfast cereal and even ground some flour. After the wheat harvest we mowed the stubble and baled the straw. The same pigs that grazed the alfalfa were farrowed and later bedded in our wheat straw as the days grew cooler, and Dad fed the shoats our own corn.

When we fed the hogs Dad told me about how he used to go to the corn crib and select ears of open pollinated seed corn from the thousands he had there. He told me how he’d sort through them and choose only the very best of what he’d grown. And then he told me about how single cross seed corn had replaced open pollinated varieties that he had planted since he was a boy on his father’s farm, where everything they grew belonged to them.

The open pollinated ears of corn from Dad ‘s crib were never worth more than about a penny apiece.

The cloth sacks that held the first single cross seeds he planted still rest in the attic of my home. Most of the seed company imprints on the sacks would be unrecognizable to young farmers today, but they tell a story that is very up to date. It is a story of progress, a story of consolidation, and a story of control.

My dad’s seed sacks.

Even as privatized seed came into being, competition made it difficult for one seed company to dominate another. Seed sales depended simply on appearance, the hybrid’s ability to withstand stress, its harvestability, marketing, and most of all”¦yield. Those were the basic parameters of operating a successful hybrid seed company. Farmers might spend a little more for the very best hybrid, but the bottom line was always about profit on the farm. For a hybrid to be good, it had to be profitable because, after all, the profits belonged to the farmers who grew the crops.

Things are different on the farm today. We’ve stopped raising the hogs I learned about so long ago. Due to consolidated markets and careless government enforcement of the law, the profit from those hogs no longer belonged to us. About the time we quit the hogs we stopped raising wheat. We didn’t need the straw for bedding, and the profit we gleaned from six or seven acres became negligible. We continued to grow alfalfa hay for the cattle as the cost of privatized commercial seed rose from $30 to $60 to $120 to $250 to $300. I haven’t planted a new alfalfa field in five years. We still grow single cross corn on the farm. Projected costs of at least some corn seeds are predicted to rise above $300 per 80,000 kernel unit this year. That price would make each of the four-hundred-thousand ears Dad had in his corn crib worth about $3 apiece. (This summer, ears of corn from my fields rose to a price near $0.05.)

Dad’s corn crop would have made him a millionaire if only he’d had the right to sell it for that. As it was, the year he taught me how to raise hogs on $1 corn, he and Mother earned about $7,000.

About the time I stopped growing hogs and wheat I started growing soybeans. The first soybeans I planted were a public variety called Clark 63. Clarks were as lush and green as any soybeans we grow today, but the yield rarely exceeded 40 bushels per acre. I soon replaced them with Williams, another public variety that dried faster and yielded about the same. Some of my neighbors saved and sold seed from high quality crops of public varieties. Saving seed netted seed costs that were $1 per acre less.

The first private soybean variety I planted in the field where pigs used to sun themselves belonged to a seed company called Asgrow. It was a copyrighted variety that dried and yielded better than Williams. I had the right to save seed from my crop of Asgrow 3127, just as I had the right to save from Williams or Clark 63, but I didn’t have the right to sell them labeled as seed. That was OK with me, because the cost of cleaning and bagging represented seed cleaner’s profits but little in savings. At about $1 per bag of $5 per bushel soybeans, the seed man’s margin was little more than 20%.

Dad, his corn planter and his seed. He owned it all.

As with corn, alfalfa, and wheat, the seed man’s share of my soybean seed cost has grown. Asgrow soybean seed for next year is projected to be as high as $60 per unit. In Dad’s day, a seed unit sold by the bushel. But up to now for me, a unit of commercial seed has been 50 pounds, or only 83% of a 60-pound bushel. Tomorrow’s seed unit will be counted as seeds, not pounds. A unit of seed may well be only 75% of a bushel”¦or less.

This year, at least one seed man’s mark-up from cleaning and bagging corporate seeds will become more than 600%.

The seed company where I bought my first private soybean variety seed was purchased lock, stock, and barrel, by Monsanto. Monsanto was the first commercial company to patent seed, and first to aggressively enforce its rights as a patent holder of living things. Monsanto has actively sued many farmers for seed patent infringement. Given the power of a billion dollar in earnings, Monsanto never loses a case. Right or wrong, the company can afford to maintain lawsuits in the courts for years. Eventually farmers who may or may not have done what they were accused of are forced to capitulate or spend the farm to defend themselves.

Thanks to higher land costs and higher prices for petroleum, machinery, chemicals, fertilizer, and seed, the cost to grow an acre of soybeans now approaches $500 per acre.
The 2008 national average soybean yield is predicted to be 40.5 bushels per acre, or about the same yield I got from the public varieties I planted nearly 40 years ago.

At today’s price of about $12 per bushel, an average acre of soybeans is worth $486.

As a commercial grower who produces soybeans for what seems like the incredible price of $12 per bushel, I haven’t simply lost the right to plant my own seed.

I may also have lost the right to earn a profit.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.