My visit with Tom Ehrhardt at Albert Lea Seed House generated lots of history. And after I wrapped up my visit, my mind was telling me, “You just heard that the future is already here!”
So let’s start from the beginning. According to Tom, co-owner with brother Mac Ehrhardt, Albert Lea Seed House dates back to 1923. The company’s original founder was Louis Ehrhardt, Tom’s grandfather, who started the business uptown in a store on Main Street in Albert Lea, Minn. Since 1973, the address has been 1414 West Main on State Highway 13 which wraps on the south and west edge of downtown.
Since 1973, however, there have been several updates.
“The facility we now occupy is 16 years old. When we moved here in ‘73 it was into a building which used to be a Smith-Douglas bulk fertilizer plant which has since been renovated several times over the years into what we have today,” said Tom.
But to get a much better scope on the expanding total product lineup of Albert Lea Seeds, listen to this: “Today we market over 90 different products ranging from a huge variety of garden seeds, plus scads of different garden tools — even including wheel barrows, trenching spades and edging stones for marking off the exact borders of your garden — even bird food too.”
However, farm seed is the driving force of this firm. And their 68-page Farm Seed Guide certainly tells the story.
The Guide’s Table of Contents lists pages of both conventional and organic corn hybrids, soybean varieties and alfalfa choices. There are also small grains, field peas, hay and pasture mixes, cool season and warm season grasses, wildflower natives for CRP acres, even sweet corn: 27 choices, both conventional and organic. There is also 14 choices for wildlife food plots. And perhaps their biggest recent addition to the farm seed world is cover crop mixes. Seven pages of their seed guide details 52 choices ranging from cover crop mixes to single species and grasses to legumes.
Also remarkable about the content of this 2020 Farm Seed Guide is that it details pricing, seeding rates, maturities, even health and disease resistance features, winter hardy scores, etc. These Albert Lea Seed Guides are a virtual agronomy handbook on crop production.
This all speaks of the reliability of Albert Lea seed house, plus the reputation with farmers across the upper Midwest.
Are there plans to keep expanding their product line? “I think we’re now going the opposite direction,” Tom admitted. “However, cover crops have been a phenomena the past five years and it fits us very well because we stock the many species that make up our cover crop offerings. We are strictly non-GMO and certified organic on our cover crop offerings. Yes, the inventory is a challenge — both in terms of mixes and quantities of each product.”
“We handle North Star Genetics corn and soybeans. We’re not licensed by the major seed firms, so that’s why we don’t have GMO’s in our product lineup.”
How is the economic crunch in agriculture impacting your marketing today? Are farmers more concerned about purchasing lower-priced non-GMO seeds?
“Sure, most are looking at ways to lessen their production costs. If corn and soybeans are not paying their bills then what can they do differently that will pay the bills? One example is to use a cover crop of yellow-blossom sweet clover instead of buying nitrogen from the elevator. This cuts fertility costs significantly while also building soil health.”
“Definitely farmers are looking at more strategies in their continual economic challenges. They’re not just thinking about saving money with cheaper seeds.”
Tom spoke of the company’s move into the organic farming world. “When we started in the mid-90’s, organics were a very fractured organic market. Lots of certifying agencies but nobody really identified just exactly what was defined as organic. But then 10 years later USDA came in with specifics on just what constituted organic production. USDA developed a label and since that happened, organics have really taken off.
“For us, it fit very well since we were already doing pedigreed seed production — in essence, certified seed. Organic production requires paper-work protocols. We hooked up with Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and organics continue to be a growing percentage of our business every year. Our feeling is that many farmers have now transitioned into some organics on a limited basis just to get a feel of how it works for them. Very likely these will keep increasing their total organic production plus we’ll keep getting more first-timers too.
“However, tHoweHhey’re not going to get as much money for their organics as the market was offering just a few years back. But they’ll still be getting a premium … and likely substantially cutting down on purchased fertility costs too. That’s going to help people stay on the farm!”
Evaluating seed prices is an ongoing business challenge. “We follow the market — both commodity prices for farmers plus our own seed production costs,” Tom explained. “If, for example, organic wheat is generating a certain premium over conventional wheat, then we likely see that as an opportunity to adjust our organic wheat seed prices accordingly. We’re very cognizant of what’s happening to farm production costs. And we’re certainly trying to keep our costs in containment also. It’s not easy, because we’re much aware that everyone’s inputs are going up — both on the farm and here in our seed business.”
As an example, conventional corns were $156 per bag this year. Organics were in the $230 bracket for Palmer Seed. “Yes, all our organic guys have contracts lined up in advance,” explained Tom. “For example, Pipeline Foods at Hope, Minn., AgraTrading at St. Ansgar, Iowa, plus the elevator at St. Peter, Minn. buy organics.”
There are markets now also for organic soybeans and even organic wheat. So Tom sees growing usage of organic seed crops continuing. And, of course, the right bump in commodity pricing for organics would generate a substantial bump in organic acres also. “Pretty much any organic, if it’s clean and quality, you can find a home for it.”
Organic seed also has some disease tolerance advantages. “We’ve got aphid-tolerant soybeans yielding 60-plus bushels routinely now,” Tom said. “We don’t see any yield disadvantages either. However, weeds can be an issue because herbicides aren’t permitted on organic crops. So keep that cultivator handy is our recommendation.”
“To some extent, we’ve created our own dilemmas. Our farmers are smart. They switch into new genetics, new technologies amazingly fast these days. And that’s partly why surplus production happens. I suggest farmers need to mix up their strategies. The corn and soybean rotation has been very good to us for many years. But excess production, trade difficulties with China, and now Covid-19 are all impacting U.S. farm markets. It’s a growing challenge on how do we best advise our customers. Frankly we’re not certain. We’re a very diverse seed company these days; but that’s no guarantee either. Seems to me faith in our Lord and faith in America always is vital.”
Wrapping up, Tom offered his take on cover crops — a relatively new dimension in today’s agriculture. “With cover crops, several things are happening. Yes, you can reduce your input costs. Yes, you can upgrade the soil health of your crop land. Yes, this lessens potential soil loss from wind and/or water erosion. You don’t visually see this the first couple years. However, many of our customers now into their fourth year or more have nothing but praise for what cover crops have done for their soils: reductions in soil loss; cleaner drainage waters; even overall improvement in financials for their farming operations. And perhaps the most priceless treasure … peace of mind that good things are happening to their soils.”
“You build soil biology with cover crops. Yes, having more biology in the soil is the name of the game anymore. I can see farm land values might someday be based on the amount of biology in your soil. Down the road it may not be crop yields that determine land prices; it may be how much biology do you have in your soil!”