The third generation family & employee-owned seed company began in Albert Lea, Minnesota in 1923, and is still focused on customer service and a commitment to serve all types of farms.
Albert Lea Seed will soon celebrate 100 years in business as a steward of seed supplies and an integral part of the agricultural community. Given the consolidation of the seed industry, with four companies owning more than 60% of the global market, that century mark as an independent entity means a lot.
Seed development and sales used to be full of many enterprises, reflecting the landscape of diverse farms and complex rotations. As agriculture has become increasingly consolidated, there are fewer players. But Albert Lea Seed customers represent a broad base, including many in the AGC network, from one-acre farms to 10,000-acre operations.
The third generation family & employee-owned seed company began in Albert Lea, Minnesota in 1923. They trace their independence and growth to consistency in customer service, and a big-tent commitment to serve farms of all sizes and types. They focus on small grains and forage crops for their clients, which number around 6,000.
“Everyone’s situation is a little different. We're not selling TVs, so we spend a lot of time on the phone and even referring folks out, if we don’t have what people need,” said Albert Lea’s organic agronomist Matt Leavitt.
“We want to understand how to help grow this community,” Matt said of the emerging markets for small grains. Looking to the long term, they’ve supported breeding and development efforts at the University of Minnesota and other research institutions to invest in improved varieties and new and emerging crops. They're also involved in efforts to expand existing and grow new market opportunities for these crops, with hopes of seeing greater integration of rotational crops and animal agriculture, and small grains in animal feed rations.
Understanding the conditions that farmers face is key to providing the right seed. Conversations help sort out the variables in a farm system, which include things like soil types, drainage issues, crop rotations, microclimates, and markets. The feedback loop from those relationships helps keep Albert Lea aware of the work it needs to do. Yet, Matt points out, the company is not trying to be the number one supplier of any particular seed, but instead part of broad efforts to support farms and rural landscapes with the resources they need to thrive. As such, they host field days and an annual late-winter open house, while supporting conferences and other field days run by organizations including Iowa Organic, and AGC members Marbleseed and UW-Madison OGRAIN.
Being a steward of seed supplies these days means getting more active in heirloom seeds, and small grains are no exception. They sourced foundation Red Fife seed that Cornell University cleaned up so the grains were true to type; Albert Lea has been growing out those seeds in Iowa and hopes to have sufficient stock available for sale beginning next year. Additionally, they carry Turkey Red, winter spelt, and continue to bolster their supplies of emmer and einkorn.
“We are working on making Kernza® more available, and playing a role in helping to grow the promise of that crop,” Matt said, noting that there’s a lot of community learning involved in selling these seeds.
That word – community – kept coming up in conversation with Matt, not as an assertion, but as an adjective. As AGC members, Albert Lea demonstrates its understanding of the concept and practice, offering financial assistance on occasion, and also participation. For example, Matt spoke on an AGC Community Call this past spring with an update on current seed supply challenges that kicked off a broader discussion on supply chain issues.
“We're very supportive of AGC and the farmer-focused mission of outreach and education. We want to be responsive to farmers' needs in this space, learn more about direct marketing of specialty grains to end-users, and better match our offerings to this community,” Matt added.
“The lifeblood of our company is diversity of farm seed,” said Matt. In a move to dig deeper into organic seeds and stretch their offerings, Albert Lea recently purchased Blue River Organic Seed, the oldest certified organic seed corn brand in the United States. Over the next couple of years, the two companies will merge and provide the strongest, farmer-focused organic seed company in the country. The Iowa facility of Blue River will remain in operation, and the combined workforce of 50 people cover every aspect of the business from seed cleaning, operations, shipping, sales, production, management, accounting, and more.
“While organic agriculture remains a small sliver of the total farming land-base in the U.S., it continues to grow every year. We are excited and hopeful about the direction of the agricultural landscape in the Upper Midwest and beyond,” said Matt. Albert Lea Seed will continue to provide new opportunities for small to mid-sized operators to make a living while diversifying their farms. We are glad to have this team on our team as farmers pursue direct-market and alternative marketing opportunities in grains, and seek out unique grain varieties to do so.