OLIVIA, Minn. — On June 25, 2018, I was sitting in Ed Baumgartner’s 3MG seed office in Olivia Minn. He had just returned from Kazakhstan (northern Europe bordering on Russia) where his firm is attempting to introduce hybrid corns with the genetic stamina to endure the harsh, dry soils common over much of this huge country.
Why Kazakhstan? Primarily because 3MG was doing some corn trials in this country for Bill and Dan Price, two enterprising North Dakota cattlemen jump-starting the beef industry in Kazakhstan. These brothers air lifted 12,000 head of registered Angus cows from their North Dakota operation. This effort is also generating a significant new interest in growing corn in Kazakhstan.
Thanks to a Kazakhstan business development specialist working seven years in the North Dakota Economic Development helping to direct new business opportunities from North Dakota to Kazakhstan, the Price brothers envisioned huge opportunity.
Dan Price related, “There simply wasn’t a cattle industry in this big country which has 16 million people and huge Russia is next door. Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world. It is an oil-rich country with other resources including productive soils. Organic matter runs about 7 percent and rainfall averages about 16 inches per year. They have lots of ground water we are told so irrigation potential looks good.
“We already knew of Ed Baumgartner’s work to provide corn hybrids that better fit the dry, colder areas of western North Dakota. We use lots of Ed’s pedigrees in our corn program. So we wondered if his firm might have a genetic package that might fit similar conditions in Kazakhstan.”
Baumgartner seems to thrive on genetic challenges for corn. He sees huge opportunities for the right genetic lineup in Kazakhstan. And with a rapidly developing cattle industry he’s confident of a growing corn market also. But it will take some learning time.
He explained, “This was a Communist governed society for many years and land is still owned by the government. Cattle guys, including the Price brothers, are renting land on a 49-year lease! But corn production is ramping up. This summer I had the unique satisfaction of standing in a 2,000 acre field of corn in Kazakhstan and this huge field was entirely our corn!”
“We’re developing corn lines to fit the specific demands for growing corn over there. It looks like early hybrids, under 80 days maturity is the only logical route. And drought tolerance is vital.
Baumgartner noted Kazakhstan farmers are beginning to understand the importance of early planting rather than waiting until the middle of May. “They don’t yet relate to ‘growing degree’ days and how that single factor pretty much determines the effective length of a growing season. So I’ve simply advised them that April 25 is time to start planting corn. I tell them they’ve got good seed with good seed treatment. So get your seeds into the soil and let the genetics go to work.”
Now jump forward to July 2021. Again I’m in Ed’s Olivia, office. He tells me this is now their fifth year in Kazakstan, “And we’re making good progress. We’re getting credibility on making recommendations on growing corn they thought were rather audacious … like going no-till, using fertilizer, etc. That comes with risks and caveats because they don’t have crop insurance to bail them out if needed. So we can understand why their farmers are not very eager to spend more money growing a crop.”
This perhaps stems from the fact that there is no such thing as agricultural extension service program providing on-farm teaching and learn demonstrations. “They do have what they call agricultural institutions,” Baumgartner explained. “But these are understaffed, poorly equipped, and simply not geared to dealing with modern production. We’re working with one of these schools which is closer to the apartment where Debbie (His wife) and I live when working there; but in our two years we haven’t spent much time over there because the pandemic locked us out for ten-and-a-half months. It’s still in a locked-down mode, so we had to navigate through lots of hoops to get back in again for our recent visit. Kazakhstan allows work visas for outsiders which we were finally able to obtain.”
So what’s the future of corn production in this distant country?
In candid terms, Baumgartner replied, “I would say limited … it’s just too dry. It’s not a Ukraine environment. Kazakhstan’s claim to fame will more likely be producing crops to become an animal production powerhouse because their culture is animal-based over the millennium. They were a nomadic people herding their animals to where the rains were falling. And that is why their government initiative is to enable their farmers to produce meat — not only for their domestic population but for neighboring countries as well.”
Baumgartner talks of some highly-productive but short-season soils which he compares to areas north of I-94 in North Dakota and into southern Canada. “Relating this to corn maturities, we’re talking sub-80-day corn. There’s few of those products available, so thus this emphasis on our breeding programs here and especially in our trials in Kazakstan. With all the stress breeding work we’ve done over the years, we’re getting good sales in these stress-related environments here in the Dakotas, Montana, western Minnesota and into Saskatchewan, Canada.
“We have enough hybrids in enough farmers’ hands; so during this season’s drought we’ve gotten many calls from corn growers simply saying ‘gosh, your corn hasn’t curled leaves, still seems to be getting along okay.’ And that obviously is music to my ears,” said a smiling Baumgartner.
Always the realist, Baumgartner says show plots are show plots — meaning your corns can look darn good in your own show plots. “But in the field, where our hybrids are planted with their favorite brands, growers are noticing the difference. When these farmers tell me we’re being competitive, that’s what counts.”
All 3MG breeding work is non-GMO. “We let the environment be a major factor in the development of our lines….in essence, the good survive; the not-so-good don’t. That is the driving factor in our work in Kazakhstan too. We don’t put a conventional in our warehouse,” states the 3MG president.
He concluded, “We’re starting a new marketing campaign called ‘the Unconventional Conventionals.’ We’ve done scads of breeding work for drought tolerance, disease tolerance and insect tolerance through native genes that exist in corn. Today, when people think of conventional corn, they think in terms of being highly problematic and needing high levels of management. But we’re concentrating on breeding more durable corn lines and this is certainly a good season to be showing the unconventionals competing against the conventionals.”
Because of transit time (60 to 90 days), 3MG hybrids to Kazakhstan move out from their Danube, Minn. distribution facility first — in mid-January. Because Kazakhstan is land locked, once off the ocean freighter, combinations of truck and rail transit moves these precious seeds to selected Kazakhstan locations. Yes, complicated to say the least.
“We have a ‘joint venture’ seed brand over there,” Baumgartner explained. “We sell the seed to them under contract in their currency with a down payment. When they receive the seed, they pay us in U.S. dollars. We own half of this joint venture business, so we make absolutely certain that everyone is taken care of fairly and squarely. The biggest hang-up for us is understanding all the Kazakhstan rules and regulations regarding importations and production of seed in their country. Eventually, we hope to have a production plant in Kazakhstan. It’s a two to three-year process, but we’re making progress.”
Yes, there’s apparently no slowdown speed in this 3MG organization. Baumgartner talks of 25 to 30 new products being registered this fall. But not all corn — soybeans, barley and possibly some new root products in the offering also. And these too are destined for Kazakhstan; plus expanding sales across North America.
This surprising closing comment from Baumgartner: “Almost all the farming people we deal with are younger folks — a complete opposite situation from the U.S.” He explained that in Kazakhstan agriculture is looked down upon. Everyone wants to leave the farm. (Much like we went through in the 70’s here in America.) “So our biggest job is not selling seed, but doing the training so they better understand the importance of a productive agriculture to their own well-being. We work at some of their internship learning centers. It’s a slow process, but progress is happening!”