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It all starts with a seed

Photo by Rachelle Klemme Adam Young puts a super sack on the valve pack bagger to fill a 40-unit bag of soybeans at Wensman.1 / 2
Photo by Rachelle Klemme A gravity table separates soybeans in the production process at Wensman.2 / 2

Wensman Seed Co. sells corn and soybean seed.

That might not seem like a lot at first, but corn and soy are everywhere, and the Wadena-based company emphasizes the latest seed technology and genetics.

"There's over 3,000 products, food and otherwise, that are made from corn in the United States. Everything from animal feed to plastic. Clothing, pharmaceuticals - corn is a very versatile plant," marketing manager Dan Sartell said.

Soy also has a wide variety of uses, he said. It is crushed for oil, used as tofu or in other foods, used as animal feed, and like corn, used in biofuels.

As a wholesale operation, Wensman Seed sells to approximately 350 dealers, who in turn sell it to the farmer to be planted. Its customers are all over Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Sartell said Wensman has a product manager and product selection team that looks at hundreds of plots a year in the three-state area.

He said that Wensman has two different operations: a sales operation and a production operation. The salespeople are stationed in different towns, with CSR force in the office as support.

"The production employees are the guys who grow it and condition it and put it in a bag and ship it," Sartell said.

Conditioning is the process of cleaning the seed.

"The conditioning process is cleaning it and then separating it by what we call grade size," Sartell said.

During the production process, the bad seed is separated from the good seed.

The production operation has AgReliant Genetics as its parent company.

"Wensman Seed is owned by AgReliant Genetics which is based in Indianapolis. AgReliant Genetics is the fourth largest seed company in the United States. We are a division of AgReliant genetics," Sartell said. "AgReliant Genetics is owned by the largest seed company in France and the largest seed company in Germany, on a joint venture. So the production people work for AgReliant Genetics which is the main company because all of their production facilities and people are under, on the organizational chart, the production side."

Different farmers have different needs, and there are different corn and soybean varieties to choose from.

"Perhaps you may have driven down the road and you could see a certain corn plant that's 8 feet tall and another corn plant that's only 6 feet tall. Those characteristics are expressed by the germplasm in the seed," Sartell said.

A farmer by the Canadian border working with a shorter growing season may grow a variety with 78 to 80 day maturity, while a farmer by the Iowa border may choose a 111-day corn because of a longer growing season.

Besides maturity, there are other options for genetic traits.

The "Roundup Ready" variety is genetically altered so that when farmers use the Monsanto product Roundup to kill weeds in the field, the corn itself will not die. Soybeans are also engineered to be tolerant to Roundup.

Other varieties are made to tolerate weed killer or withstand pests.

"A farmer needs to determine what's going on in his soil, in order to determine which one of these he needs to plant," Sartell said.

Corn seed has even been modified to fight back against its predators.

"We have what is called a corn borer corn, and that is genetically modified so that when the European corn borer moth lands on the corn plant and chews on the leaves, it will die," Sartell said.

He said that a huge infestation of corn borer moths can knock a yield down 30 to 40 percent.

Genetic engineering technology for agriculture took off in the 1990s.

"They will genetically, in the DNA, put a chromosome in or take one out, because the chemical in Roundup kills the plant by attacking a certain part of the DNA," Sartell said. "So what they do is they go in and either protect that part or take it out altogether."

Sartell said that BT is a natural protein that kills the moth if ingested, and organic farmers have already used it. The engineering process puts the BT protein into the corn seed itself.

"The very first process that they used was rather crude. They literally shot, with a .22 shell, the BT protein into cells of a corn plant. And they were able to insert that protein into that cell," Sartell said.

These corn and soybean products are known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The scientists who engineer them are sourced from outside companies, primarily Monsanto which is headquartered in St. Louis.

If you thought piracy was limited to file-sharing or swashbucklers on the high seas, think again: a page on the Wensman 2010-11 Management Advisory Guide discusses Seed Piracy Prevention. Some genetic varieties are patent-protected, so saving seeds for the next season or sharing them with other growers is illegal.

"Farmers who use GMO products are able to grow more corn or more soybeans on their acres while using less herbicides and less pesticides, so the environmental impact is greatly diminished," Sartel said.

GMOs have been controversial, and some consumers choose to buy GMO-free food products.

"They feel that something that's been genetically modified perhaps isn't good for them. But mother nature has been genetically modifying plants ever since the world began by natural selection," Sartell said. He added that traditional agricultural practices like grafting are examples of man altering plants for hundreds of years.

Sartell said Monsanto is coming up with new things including a corn plant that more effectively uses nitrogen fertilizer and a corn plant that is tolerant to drought conditions and needs less water.

Sartell said other new practices, in general, include farmers growing new corn with computerized field maps and variable seeding where soil in one part of the field is more fertile.

Sartell said that one bag of soybeans yields about one acre of soybeans, and one bag of corn yields about 2.5 acres of corn.

Sartell said that the new practices make the growing process more efficient.

"Farmers are going to have to grow more food to feed the world," he said.

Wensman has its roots in the multi-faceted agricultural company Peterson-Biddick which started in Wadena in 1910, and also in 1942 as one of the original Funk's G seed corn franchisees. Sartell said the company raised, conditioned, bagged and sold hybrid seed corn since the 1940s.

"Through the course of the years, Al Wensman ... bought the assets of Peterson-Biddick company from Harold Peterson and some other shareholders and took over the operation," Sartell said.

At the time, Wensman ran the turkey operation, but eventually the turkeys were no longer a viable business. Wensman's sons Jeff, Jon and Jim came into the businesses, and they transitioned to the current focus.

Part of Wensman Seed has been on U.S. Highway 10 since 1983. The drying and conditioning facilities were built there in 1993 but the offices were not moved out there until 1998.