OLIVIA, Minn. — During the late 1960s and 1970s, Olivia, Minn. was buzzing. Two new seed corn companies were news-makers across the corn belt because of their rapid growth. RBA Hybrids was under the tutelage of Bob Rauenhorst; and Keltgen Seed Company had Keith Keltgen at the helm.
In those days, a few big names dominated the seed industry. New seed brands faced intense competition.
By 1976-77, RBA was being acknowledged as the third or fourth-largest seed company in the 10-state northern corn belt. Keltgen Seed Company, marketing primarily Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana and northern Iowa, soon picked up the title of ‘the fastest growing’ new seed company.
However, fate intervened. A deadly airplane crash in 1978 killed five of the RBA leadership team. The cancerous death of Keith Keltgen in 1999 pretty much stifled the continuous growth of his company. It was eventually purchased by Dow AgriSeeds.
Nonetheless, the bustling growth of these two Olivia-based and family-owned seed firms was being noticed at all levels — including state government. In 1993, the Minnesota State Legislature designated Olivia as “The Seed Corn Capital of Minnesota.” That prompted the construction of a 100-foot tall ear corn monument adjoining U.S. Hwy. 212 — complete with a colorful history on the corn dominance of Renville County.
Olivia’s ambitions as the Seed Corn Capital of Minnesota prevailed, mostly because of Olivia native and University of Minnesota agronomy graduate Ed Baumgartner. Raised on a farm on the south edge of town, Ed and his dad, Joe, had worked seed production fields for the Olivia-based seed firms. His early work after college brought him back home to Olivia and Keltgen Seed Company. Keltgen was conducting winter research at a Puerto Rican seed nursery facility.
This led to Ed’s 20-year Puerto Rico career directing research projects for Dow AgriSeeds. This Puerto Rico tenure involved upwards of 300 seasonal employees and 19 different crops utilizing nearly 300 acres. It also fueled his ambition to return to Olivia and launch his own seed firm.
Interviewed during his first year ‘back home,’ Ed proudly exclaimed, “It’s fun to be back in Olivia, the Corn Capital. Yes, my early intrigue in corn genetics stems directly from high school summers with the research crew of Trojan Seed Company.”
Baumgartner launched his new seed firm, 3MG (3rd Millenium Genetics) in 2005. The company’s singular mission was the introduction of new non-GMO corn hybrids. This certainly bucked the ambitions of most seed companies which spent millions introducing nothing but new GMO hybrids.
Why the emphasis on non-GMO breeding? “Because of the constantly growing market here in America and Europe which is still non-GMO,” Baumgartner replied. “Plus there’s getting to be a growing international call for our products.”
And that includes Kazakhstan — a huge land-locked country bordering on both Russia and China, where Ed and his wife currently reside. Thanks to Internet access, I had a chance to visit with Baumgartner on Jan. 7.
The Land: 2019 was a not-so-good year for Midwest farmers. By contrast, 2020 in most parts was super (especially in Renville County). Can 2021 be a repeat?
Baumgartner: I think it can be with Mother Nature cooperating. Last fall’s harvest season was a pleasant surprise after a few years of often fighting mud. Yes, timely rains will again be required for 2021. Renville County is blessed with good soils, abundant tile drainage, and farmers who can quickly handle the adverse conditions should that prevail.
The Land: You got some of your seed into Kazakhstan fields last year. How do you handle seed shipments and pricing into foreign countries?
Baumgartner: 3MG is now focused on contract research work only. We changed the seed part of 3MG to BASS Genetics and BASS Hybrids (Baumgartner Agricultural Science and Services). BASS Hybrids sells seed across the corn belt and BASS Genetics licenses and sells our hybrids around the globe. That partly explains my current presence in Kazakhstan. Until last season, corn growers here haven’t had the opportunity to grow our seeds. It requires 60 days transit time from our Danube, Minn. warehouse to clear customs to Kazakhstan. Our seed is priced the same here as in the USA. However, overseas customers pay the freight and related expenses such as VAT. Daughter Rachel at our Danube warehouse handles the complex logistics and paperwork. And yes, we’ll have more acres of BASS Hybrids planted here this 2021 season.
The Land: Over the years you’ve collected germplasm of different strains of corn around the world. Are you still finding new germplasm sources with improved results in insect, heat and drought tolerance?
Baumgartner: This continues to be the most exciting part of product development. Genes to improve drought, heat and insect tolerance are present in the corn gene pool. There is no need to add foreign genes to find these traits. Yes, it takes time and a different breeding methodology, but you can coax these genes into expressing themselves and then corral them into our germplasm base. Once in our germplasm, we develop hybrids for farmers around the globe.
The Land: Will non-GMO strategies continue to be the wellspring of your company?
Baumgartner: BASS Hybrids will NOT permit a GMO to enter its warehouse! Our primary intent since day one was to be a leading source of non-GMO hybrids. The non-GMO market is a viable and growing market for us. We see more and more farmers switching 100 percent to non-GMO. And it’s not just a seed price issue. It lessens their herbicide-management headaches also.
The Land: With most farmers pleased — perhaps surprised — with crop profits last year, might there be a battle between corn and soybean acres in 2021?
Baumgartner: From an agronomic standpoint, I would rather farmers keep their crop rotations intact. I understand their ambition for that ‘home run’ too! The beauty of developing our own products is that we actually develop hybrids for corn-on-corn situations since many of our customers are livestock farmers with a need for corn-on-corn acres.
The Land: So what’s ahead for 3MG? Is the 300-bushel yield a reality? Lots of 200-plus bushel yields last fall. How many new hybrids into the 2021 market? And you now have 76 and 78-day hybrids. Is this a ‘safety bailout’ when Mother Nature delays planting?
Baumgartner: In 37 years of sitting in the plot combine, I have only seen 300 bushels across the screen one time. Yes, under the right circumstances 300-bushel yields do happen. Last season several of our ‘grow out’ plots hit close.
We are constantly adding hybrids to meet specific customer needs. That’s why we call BASS Hybrids personalized seed. Consistency of production on a year-to-year basis is what corn producers most appreciate; but everyone likes the ‘home run’ too!
Our commercial lineup for 2021 totals 32 hybrids — our biggest lineup ever. And we’re excited about these early hybrids too. Our maturity range is from 76-day to 114 days. My original thinking was developing inbred lines to license and sell to other seed companies. But thanks to business friends, my family members, and perhaps my own ambitions, we decided to get into this exciting world of retail marketing also. Yes, it’s a sometimes whacky world out there — especially this season. But we have great employees. We can handle the bumps and bruises of the seed business. Most importantly, we have the very best customers.
According to Baumgartner, Kazakhstan farmers grow about 2 million acres of corn annually. Most of it fed to their domestic livestock, primarily cattle. Some corn was exported to China; but this has stopped after the pandemic hit the world. Baumgartner expects exports are likely to increase again as China rapidly rebuilds their huge swine industry.
Kazakhstan has huge farms. The average size is about 12,500 acres. "We'll have BASS hybrids on considerable acres this year,” Baumgartner claimed. “I can't yet say how many, but on one 24,000 corn operation we will be the dominant seed brand. As their farmers and seedsmen learn more about our non-GMO hybrids and superior insect and drought tolerance, our growth over here will continue."
Baumgartner is particularly pleased about two new 76-day and 78-day BASS hybrids which should conveniently work in the shorter growing season of Kazakhstan.
For more information on BASS offerings, visit www.basshybrids.com or call (320) 522-3461.