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New seed companies take boot.

Recently, two new companies announced they were breaking new ground and taking root in the seed business--Rob-See-Co and Funk Seed.

Do the names sound familiar? In actuality, these are new, revived companies. Their brand names are very familiar within the business and have legacies that reach back over 100 years.

Rob-See-Co can trace its foundations to the J.0 Robinson Seed Company which was established in Waterloo, NE, in 1888, later becoming one of the six original owners of the Golden Harvest Seed Company.

The Funk name carries equal legacy weight with a long and significant history in the agricultural seed industry In 1935, Edward J. Funk and his sons were pioneers in developing and bringing to market a new technology for the time--hybrid corn. That technology revolutionized the seed corn industry

Today's seed business is radically different, though, with five companies (Dow AgroSciences, Dupont Pioneer, Limagrain, Monsanto and Syngenta) making up 80% of the U.S. corn market and 70% of the U.S. soybean market.

Still, according to Greg Ruehle, CEO of the Independent Professional Seed Association (IPSA), there's room for the smaller, independent seed company. IPSA was formed in 1989 by a group of seed producers who recognized the need for an organization to represent the unique needs of independent seed companies.

Today, it represents nearly 100 seed companies from more than 25 states, Canada and Mexico, producing corn, soybeans, small grain and forage seeds. The Association also has nearly 100 associate and affiliate members, representing all facets of the seed industry.

"I'm really not surprised that Rob Robinson and Bill Funk have entered the market again," says Ruehle. "We have new seed companies starting up every year, which shows that there's still tremendous opportunity for the smaller organization out there.

"For example, smaller companies offer a unique alternative to the national brands by offering a high level of customer service," he explains. "This is, after all, a high-touch business. And that's something that's missing in much of agriculture today."

Of course, personal service alone will not make a business successful. The company's core product has to deliver, as well.

"Our members have lots of choices to build a solid portfolio of seed offerings," says Ruehle, "not only from independent sources, but also with different traits."

A reliable seed source plus high-touch personal service. Rob-See-Co and Funk Seed have set their sights on delivering just that and more.


Owner and CEO, Rob Robinson, says he aims to fill a void in the western and central Corn Belt left by years of seed company acquisitions and mergers, and to provide farmers with leading edge seed technology and proven genetics. Over the next two to three years, Rob-See-Co plan5 to develop sales in Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, western Iowa, Kansas and western Missouri.

"Rob-See-Co is a name well recognized in the western Corn Belt," says Robinson. "It has long epitomized seedsmanship, strong bonds with customers, and deep knowledge of hybrid and variety placement."

Robinson understands, though, that a company cannot be successful simply on its legacy. "We have developed a differentiation strategy around two themes," he states. "The first is keeping things simple in a complicated world. The second is offering innovative technology from people whom customers know and trust."

"Today, there are almost no independent seed companies left in this part of the world," continues Robinson, "yet many producers prefer buying seed from a company that forges strong relationships with its customers. In addition, the seed buying decision has become more complex and farmers need a partner they can trust to place the right hybrids and varieties on their farm.

"Not only that, we aim to simplify the entire seed buying process. Since Rob-See-Co is starting from scratch, we aren't bound to do things the same way as everyone else in the industry. We can simplify the entire process. And that includes streamlining the pricing and discount system, and offering fewer options while still meeting customers' needs."

He continues, "Rob-See-Co will be a company that develops strong relationships with customers, builds trust, and provides high-touch customer service combined with a strong product and product placement focus, Certainly, choice will be important, but it will be tightly controlled to manage complexity.

"We also continue to investigate other means of differentiation. For example, through our sister company, Ag Visors, we are developing an integrated approach to combine seed., precision agriculture and field consulting in a unique way. Our aim is to create a synergy that's only possible from a deep understanding of these three disciplines."


That said, Rub-See-Co's main focus will still be seed. According to Robinson, "What lacks in many distribution channels today is a commitment to, and a deep understanding of, seed. This is one of the reasons many producers are so frustrated with their current local seed buying options.

"Offering many product lines through a single person or point of sale sounds good. But the seed decision has such a dramatic impact on a producer's results, it deserves someone who is a true expert focused only on seed. At this point our focus is clearly corn and soybean seed.

"So, we've positioned Rob-See-Co as an independent company that distributes Syngenta's new Innotech brand of corn and soybean seed," he continues. "Innotech is the combination of the words 'Innovation' and 'Technology.' It only seems fitting that the strengths of the Rob-See-Co reputation is combined with the industry leading technology available in Innotech seed."

Robinson believes that customers of all ages and farm size will see that relationship as offering a big plus. "We have received a very warm welcome by all of our old friends and are making many new friends as well," he says.

"We know that larger, younger producers tend to be very business-oriented with the bottom line playing a large part in the buying decision. However, as producers age and gain experience, they tend to become more loyal to suppliers who provide a high level of the kind of service they value. We believe we can offer value to both of these segments, because they both want to do business with someone they know and trust.

"Rob-See-Co is a name many remember in a positive light. And, producers also recognize the strength of Syngenta science and are anxious for a competitive alternative to the Monsantos and Duponts of the world.

"We're certainly comfortable with our relationship with Syngenta and fully expect to compete head to head with those companies."


Rob-See-Co's high-touch, streamlined approach to selling seed starts right at the farm gate.

"We're creating a direct sales model focused on Direct Sales Reps (DSRs) who are full-time employees selling direct to farmers with 1,000 acres of corn or more in a 3 to 4 county area," explains Robinson.

"In addition, we're establishing a number of Business Associate (BA) positions. They'll be responsible for local sales on a contract or independent basis.

"We're in the process of hiring DSRs and BAs now.

With our current experienced team of sales, business and product management professionals and those ready to come on board with Rob-See-Co, we expect the development of these regions to progress rapidly."


Bill Funk, Founder of Funk Seed, has been in the seed business for the past 40 years. "I grew up working with my dad, William E. Funk in northern Indiana," Funk explains. "In 1980 I formed my own seed company, Specialty Hybrids. For a variety of reasons, I sold that company to Monsanto in 2005. I felt that with the state of the seed business today, it was a good time to start a new Funk Seed."

That state of the business, he continues, has to do with more about what's missing, than what's being offered. Says Funk, "I see three areas missing in the seed business today: real transparency with what's in the bag of seed; a focus on the growers' needs, and the development of a grower community or network. Funk Seed is working to satisfy those needs.

"For example," he says, "growers will pay $300 to $400 for a bag of seed, yet they really don't know too much about what's in it, except for the germination rate. They don't know the hybrid's background, who grew it, the conditions it was grown under and, most importantly, how pure it is. This information just isn't available to growers today. Funk Seed will change that by bringing clarity and putting control of the purchase process back in the hands of growers."

With Funk Seed, growers will be able to track their seed from the moment it's planted in the production field, all the way through detasseling and harvest. Once harvested, their seed will undergo a battery of tests, providing growers with the most important piece of information needed for any seed to produce to its full potential--the quality of the seed itself.

According to Funk, each bag of Funk Seed will provide warm and cold germination rates, trait purity, genetic purity and vigor testing. "It's that kind of information that's sorely needed by producers, so they can make the right decision on what to plant and when."

In other words, Funk believes that more control should be given back to the grower. "The big companies are inward-focused, offering only what they have decided to sell," he states. "Funk Seed works to find the pain points for each individual grower, then supply the right seed product that grower needs."

If this sounds like something that takes planning a year or more out, it is. "We have to go to growers a year in advance," explains Funk. "We talk new technologies and new offerings. And we find out which, if any, will help the grower on an individual basis. We really are putting the human element back into the seed business."


While the company will offer a Funk Seed brand, it will also distribute Syngenta's Innotech brand corn and soybean seed for the 2014 planting season. "The pieces from Syngenta help us fill out our portfolio," says Funk. "We needed those traits to be at the top of the rung.

"Syngenta is coming on strong with their new offerings. They're investing $1.5 billion annually on research and development, making a strong move to be the new leader in the seed business."

Funk Seed company is focused on using salespeople visiting on-the-farm. "Right now, we have six reps in Indiana, three in Illinois and three in Iowa," states Funk. "Indiana is our heaviest focus, of course."

That will change soon, according to Funk, "We plan to be a national brand, and that's starting to happen. We've already sold seed in Iowa, South Dakota, Lllinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and have grower interest in Tennessee and Texas."

E-brochures and electronic ordering are standard fare for Funk Seeds' reps. Funk explains, "We have to get accurate, updated information out to growers faster. Using electronic 'print' helps. But we see the internet as a tool, not a sales mechanism."


In the very near future, Funk Seeds will offer a rather unique service to their grower customers--aerial details of germination rates, weed and insect pressures, disease problems and the like.

"We're partnering with Jerry Johnson at Superior Edge Farm Intelligence," says Funk. "They're developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that can read light spectrum signatures of all sorts of things in the field, including weeds MI and insects. This is real-time information on problems that can be corrected right away."

While UAVs and quick fly-overs may seem simple enough, the information they derive can be very complex. According to Funk, "As a UAV flies over a field, lots of things are happening. It will fly slower against the wind, be buffeted by the wind and weather, wing tips can dip and bounce. All these things can affect the data.

"Superior Edge has worked out the formulas to solve these problems with the data. Now, we can offer growers real opportunities to make full use of their seed potential.

"Research tells us that if all things were perfect in the field, and the corn seed is at its peak, yields could go as high as 600 bushels to the acre," Funk reports. "That may sound out of reach. But think about how far we've come since the 1980s. We rarely saw 200 bushel corn then. But just the other day, I was sifting in a combine that hit the 330 bushel level in a portion of a field."


Seed aside, the new technology using UAVs may well work into Funk Seed's favor with younger producers.

"We've found that not one person, young or old, hasn't recognized the name, Funk, and what it means to the seed business," states Funk. "But we also know that younger farmers gravitate to technology. They really understand it. And, we feel they'll want to do business with Funk Seed because of it."

Take pride in the brand legacy. Offer personalized service and seed that performs. That's how Rob-See-Co and Funks Seed intend to take root and crow.

by Mike Gustafson, Deer's Landing
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Author:Gustafson, Mike
Publication:Agri Marketing
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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