OLIVIA, Minn. — “It’s fun to be a family business in Olivia, the Corn Capital of Minnesota.”
This comment by Ed Baumgartner, the entrepreneurial spirit who gave birth 12 years ago to one of America’s more unique corn companies, is especially relevant because Baumgartner was born and raised in Olivia. In fact, some of his early intrigue in corn genetics stems from high school summers with the research crew of Trojan Seed Company. In the 1970s, Trojan was fast-emerging as one of the rising new hybrid corn companies.
Baumgartner Agricultural Science and Service (BASS) is the name of Baumgartner’s seed company. 3MG (3rd Millenium Genetics) is the corporate entity — now into its 11th year of existence. And the Corn Capital of Minnesota is home base. But launching a new seed company takes time, incredible patience and that very special genetic touch of inspecting and then isolating desirable germ plasm from literally hundreds of potential genetic lines.
The first eight years of 3MG’s existence centered on research, research, research and then more research. Besides a sharp eye, patience is a key requirement in this exciting adventure. Baumgartner’s mother owns farmland at very edge of Olivia. Well-drained and fertile soils are trademarks of Renville County, Minn. That is why Trojan Seed and upwards of eight other seed companies conducted research and development activities in the Olivia area.
But Baumgartner had another — even more valuable — ‘gold finger’. For eight years he had directed the R and D activities of Dow’s Agro Science genetic research program in Puerto Rico. Baumgartner was extremely knowledgeable about the soils, weather and culture of this Caribbean island’s 365-days per year research environment. And when you can germinate and do grow-outs up to three times in one year, you have indeed stepped up the introduction of new hybrids.
So consequently, 3MG is now into its third year of marketing non-GMO hybrids under the BASS label. Baumgartner is the 59-year old president of one of the newest seed corn companies in America. Its singular mission is the introduction of new non-GMO corn hybrids. And that certainly bucks directly the ongoing ambitions of most seed companies which spend millions introducing new GMO hybrids with multiple-trait selections. BASS is offering 14 hybrids for 2020.
Explained Baumgartner, “We’re still a bit light in marketing manpower, so we’re concentrating our efforts mostly in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. We’re strong in early hybrids — 105-day and earlier. And our selection efforts have paid particular attention to two environmental factors: heat tolerance and drought tolerance.”
However, expect considerably more marketing muscle of BASS hybrids from now on. 3MG purchased the
square foot Grissly Buildings structure east side of Danube, Minn. Pat Baumgartner is Director of Operations of this new facility — the new retail center of BASS Hybrids.
When asked about significant milestones for 3MG in the past few years, Baumgartner had this to say: “I don’t think about specifics. But this has been a whirlwind year. And this season in particular reminded us again how important relationships are with your customers, friends and neighbors. In 2017, Maria, the huge hurricane that wrapped its devastating winds around Puerto Rico, was extremely difficult for us and all Puerto Rican people. (3MG operates a 900-acre research and nursery facility in Puerto Rico.) The outpouring of support — especially from other seed company associates — was so tremendous. Plus, financial help so our employees could rebuild their homes was major.”
3MG almost exclusively employs local workers which translates to upwards of 80 people at their Puerto Rico facility. “The natives are used to working in this tropical climate,” reasoned Baumgartner. “Pest challenges are a never-ending struggle when you do crop work in the tropics. Our crop sprayers are used every week year round it seems.”
3MG is a busy outfit with 16 research plots in three states. Some plot locations changed due to wet weather this spring and five ended in prevent plant status. Baumgartner said they planted from May 4 to June 14 this year. And it looks like they’ll be harvesting every plot without early frost kill. “If you let yourself get depressed last spring, you wouldn’t be harvesting this fall. So count your blessings. Power through it and trust the good Lord is on your back,” summed up Baumgartner.
Baumgartner noted — like most growers — 3MG faced many challenges during the 2019 season. “We had planting delays at all 10 locations.” (3MG conducts research work in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, plus dozens of both corn silage and corn grain trials.) “And we’re now looking at harvest delays also. But we’re excited. This season reveals some very strong products that we have developed over the years — especially in the early maturities. Sometimes the unpredictables of Mother Nature can highlight some genetic reactions — both good and bad — that likely wouldn’t have shown in a normal season. That’s good. That’s exciting.”
Early hybrids are a particular strategy of 3MG. We’re talking less than 90-day maturities; even some 70-day genetics are looking good too. Baumgartner related to the advent of TX68, a 68-day hybrid by Trojan Seed in the early 1970s. “The idea being a corn crop that would double crop in the deep south and also produce a good corn in North Dakota, even Canada.”
Even the remote country of Kasakhstan now grows some 3MG hybrids. Baumgartner admits growing corn is still in its infancy in Kasakhstan. And it faces a variety of environmental and moisture challenges.
Communism doesn’t prevail in Kasakhstan, but that thinking still seems to permeate. “We’ve been selling some seed over there, but their education doesn’t encourage them to take advantage of the improved genetics of hybrid corn,” Baumgartner explained. “They’ve been free of Communism for 25 years, but they still have a mindset mostly unchanged from that earlier era. They aren’t tuned in to what the climate tells them to do.”
Baumgartner explained that when Russia dominated the country in the early 1900s, farming people were purged from the industrial population, so agricultural knowledge was lost and the government made no effort to rekindle their farming industry. Fast forward to 1991 when Communism fell. The people were basically starving to death because the Soviet system didn’t provide their means. They truly do need an influx of information to recapture their agriculture knowledge and new initiatives. The current economic status of Kasakhstan farmers isn’t encouraging new farmers. But 3MG is making some inroads with younger people getting into agriculture. “Most of the younger generation is bilingual, so they understand even when we gray-haired Yankees are talking about how to grow crops,” chuckled Baumgartner.
“They need an Extension or farm co-op system that teaches,” Baumgartner continued. “We’ve worked with just a few farmers and so-called ag specialists. Their farmers are eager to learn. My wife and I enjoy the people. We’ll be back there encouraging corn as a new alternative in their farming programs. And since there isn’t wide-scale use of fertilizers, chemicals for weed control, and other fungicides, our non-GMO hybrids could be a logical choice.”
Even for U.S. farmers scrambling to cut production costs, non-GMO seed is a good starting point. Non-GMO hybrids continue to be priced about $100 per bag (80,000 kernels) cheaper. And 3MG thinks non-GMO products into the food chain will keep increasing. “Today, it’s about consumer choice. And if non-GMO feedstuffs are where they are heading, we want to be able to provide just that,” said Baumgartner.
Because of trips to Europe, Baumgartner is much aware European nations are more tuned in to the ‘healthy food’ connotations of non-GMO grains. He thinks policy makers may want to change; but the people don’t.
Baumgartner doesn’t venture what might happen in China, saying only, “China is a complicated place to do business. I prefer not getting involved until things sort themselves out. We’re a small company and wish to proceed where we feel most comfortable.”
Baumgartner is much aware of the recent chatter of corn that grows its own nitrogen. “Yes, I think it’s real. We’re searching through germ plasm that we can access. But for us, it’s too soon to tell.”
But 3MG is continuing their collection of different strains of corn from all over the globe. “Some corns native to the tropics have some interesting characteristics,” Baumgartner said. “We’re putting together good materials on insect tolerance and heat tolerance, plus building on grain quality also. And we’re noting lots of corn standing in wet fields this year is not showing severe nitrogen deficiencies. If you’re looking at nitrogen-fixing corn in a wet year, we’re seeing lots of our plots where corn has had wet feet all year yet is still surviving. There might be something going on out there. Our challenge is, can we replicate that environment in lab or greenhouse screenings?”
Could 3MG breeding extend the corn belt into hotter and dryer areas? “At this stage we’re comfortable with our products mostly in the western corn belt,” Baumgartner confessed. However, like every seed corn guy, he envisions dependable 300-bushel hybrids will soon be standard menu with many seed companies — including 3MG.
Even with this challenging year, Baumgartner has seen a few bright spots for 3MG plant breeders. “We look for anything that does well in adverse conditions,” he said. “Yes, we’re seeing things we really like — even in this kind of a year. Sometimes they match up with something that looks good in a dry situation; or in a very hot situation. Those are the proverbial ‘needle in a hay stack’ gems. But years like this make it very difficult to cut those products you are testing because the overall quality of information isn’t good enough. This means we’ll have to bring along some ‘garbage’ we normally would have discarded.
“Our primary goal is to succeed on the tough acres first. But with the growing challenge of food production in marginal cropland in other parts of the world, we hope to continue making a footprint were other seed geneticists aren’t working.”
Top yields aren’t the only objective of 3MG. “Sometimes it’s working with farmers in their own culture so both you and they understand what they can do to make corn a more rewarding enterprise, Baumgartner said. “We need to understand the real implications — both financial and agronomic — when we propose different cropping systems to these folks. Like what is the best population to plant a given hybrid at? And what is the best way to save somebody some money? Sure, start with fewer seeds per acre. But that’s counter intuitive to a seed developer. So we have to look at the financial health of our customer. If we suggest 20 percent less seed and still maintain similar yield, then that’s what we should do. That’s the kind of stuff we’re studying now. With the high-stress studies we’re doing, it’s looking like we can back off planting rates 10 percent with no yield difference, and maybe 15 percent with just a slight reduction. If that simply helps this farmer, this family, with some cash flow issues, then we are doing good work.”
But with break evens a seemingly perennial challenge with corn, might alternative crops start capturing more of the U.S. farming landscape? Baumgartner confesses, “I’m addicted to corn because it’s fun to grow and readily responds to your management. You can see the results of what we do with corn and that is very enticing to both we researchers and farmers as well. Yes, farmers most likely are producing too much corn. Yet our usage is so high. With just one little hiccup in this production, we’re going to be talking a different story 12 months from now — even sooner.
“Yes, I think this 2019 season is producing a hiccup. Weather has been almost the constant challenge. Yields are down; quality is down. We’ve harvested four out of our five silage plots. Normally we’d see 27 to 30 tons on our most elite products. This year we’re looking at plot averages of 24-25 tons, even 20 to 22 tons on our later-planted plots. Already commodity prices on corn, soybeans, even wheat are bumping up.”
So what’s ahead for 3MG? Obviously more new hybrids and expanding sales are their continuous goal just like any other seed company. And even though 3MG currently has 14 hybrids in their 2019 market lineup, four hybrids lead the parade. “I think that’s the same with any seed company,” admitted Baumgartner, “always just a few out front regardless of how many total products in the sales catalog.”
He mentioned six research and experiment stations in various parts of Europe included some 3MG pedigrees. “Of the six locations, every researcher noted the heat tolerance and drought tolerance of our products vs. other material they were looking at. For me, that was a moment of victory telling me we’ve got some pedigrees ready for the rest of the world.”
Will non-GMO strategies continue to be the wellspring of 3MG? In simple words, Baumgartner stated, “That is our bread and butter. We fight the urge to get into the GMO world. Within our own staff I sometimes hear the comment, ‘If we just had this GMO trait it would be wonderful.’ But our mission is still the same: Providing to the consumer what he or she wants in non-GMO products. We can’t compete with the agro-world companies sustained on what they do in the commodity world. Ours is a specialty market from producer farmers directly to the consumers and follow that chain beginning with organic crops to where they eat their bacon or drink their milk and cheese.”
He refers to western Europe’s continual push to less chemicals in their food chain and more organics. “But you travel to other countries of people with less money and you sense their worry is putting food on the plate — even having a piece of meat once a week for their children. That’s the dichotomy of our world today. Yes, we’re concerned about the quality of food that goes on the plate of Kakastan families too. Sure I’m biased, but that is why I think our less expensive, non-GMO hybrids can be a breakthrough for corn producers in this huge country.”
“Puerto Rico continues as the hub of our research and development work,” said Baumgartner. “We had six full-time employees and upwards of 90 when doing special project work for ourselves and some of our clients. Many of those temporary people at our Puerto Rico station also become key workers at our research plots here in Minnesota and elsewhere. I frankly was surprised at calls from other seed companies asking if we could handle some of their research work at our Puerto Rico station.
“We had the big drop off after Hurricane Maria. We were already seeing the reductions within the U.S. seed industry. Tariffs with China; the shutdown of GMO traits in many countries; plus all the merger activity within the industry slowed work for us too. Outside research contracts are the first cut when companies start dressing themselves up for merger consideration. So we lost a lot of business with majors during that time frame; but fortunately picked up with several intermediate and family-sized seed businesses.”
Baumgartner admits a few traces of his age are beginning to show. “I probably have a bit less energy than 10 years ago; but the desire and drive to get up every day and go to work is still there. We sometimes get asked, ‘what are you going to do when it’s time to quit?’ We’ve done lots of secession planning, but now the joke is I’ll still be around longer than the people who are in the secession plan.”
“The best part is I get to walk with my wife Debbie virtually every day. My kids are with us in the 3MG business too. Yes, life is good and I thank the Lord for his blessings.”