Sowing Tomorrow’s Crops Today
A Canadian seed grower discusses the challenges of running a small operation and the benefits of knowing your customers’ needs.
By Tharran E. Gaines
Marc Durand is one of an endangered breed. A pedigreed seed grower in southern Manitoba, he and his family have managed to weather a lengthy period of consolidation, in which many smaller operations like his have been absorbed into larger farms.
“There are only a few small players left in the business,” says Marc, who manages the wholesale and retail business for Durand Seeds, his family’s 2,100-acre farm that grows seed for wheat, barley, oats, flax and buckwheat. “The farms are getting bigger, and there are fewer smaller farmers. And there are a lot of private seed companies that have taken over [some operations] and taken business from smaller seed growers.”
Since his father, Gabriel, started the business some 45 years ago, the number of Canadian pedigreed seed operations has dropped from near 5,500 to about 3,500 today. Yet, the size of the average operation has almost tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association.
Such a trend is, of course, reflective of ag operations on the whole. Marc’s customers have gotten larger, too, and as a result he’s had to change the way he operates, both catering to a need for bigger orders, while still offering knowledgeable, personal service.
For instance, instead of selling seed in the 50-pound, 40-kilogram and 25-kilogram paper bags that were once a mainstay of the business, most of his varieties are now sold in 1-ton tote bags. In addition, there are greater price pressures, as some of the larger operations try to sell their seeds at lower prices than smaller farms. Marc also notes that “as Canadian farms grow larger in size, more and more farmers tend to grow their own seed.”
According to Marc, sales continue to be up and down, but he says he competes by knowing his customers and their operations. “Since we grow the seed crop right here in the area, we know how it will perform in the local climate and in our soil types,” he says, noting that most of their seed is sold to neighbors and other farmers within Manitoba. “We also grow more than one variety of every crop, and we talk to customers who are growing our seed. Consequently, we’re able to predict how most varieties will perform under different cropping conditions.”
That personal service began almost by accident, says Marc, when his father purchased a grain elevator almost 50 years ago. “The irony is that Dad never set out to be a seed producer. He had actually bought a local elevator and moved it to the farm for the purpose of storing grain. It wasn’t long, though, before other farmers began asking him when he was going to start cleaning seed, since there seemed to be quite a need in the area,” he adds. “So that’s where it all began.”
Today, Gabriel still helps with seeding and harvesting, while Marc spends much of his time transporting seed, fertilizer and harvested grain, and filling customer orders for seed. “I’m the one who does the multitasking,” the younger Durand relates with a grin. His three brothers and a sister are still shareholders in the operation.
In addition to the pedigreed seed they grow and clean, the Durands also grow canola and soybeans as cash crops, and sell seed from a few other companies that grow forage crops like alfalfa and grass hay. Plus, they do some custom cleaning for farmers who retain a portion of their own crop for seed.
While the family’s cleaning operation has been upgraded over the years with new cleaners, greater storage capacity, and additional equipment, they still need to do things the old-fashioned way when it comes to growing seed. As an example, Durand says he can’t use Roundup® for pre-harvest burn-down due to the potential for seed damage.
“A practice these days is to kill the wheat with Roundup at maturity, let it dry on the stalk and then direct cut the crop with the combine to reduce equipment expenses,” he explains. “Since we can’t do that, we still have to swath everything, let it dry in the windrow and pick it up with the combine,” he adds.
Marc also has to practice a lot stricter rotation than the average farmer—not only for disease prevention, but also for genetic purity, as well. “We’ll often have two to four different varieties of wheat and one or two varieties of barley,” he says. “So we generally go from cereal to canola, flax or buckwheat before going back to cereal. We also have a few fields that are continuous wheat on wheat or barley on barley. That’s because those varieties have been bred for sprouting resistance to keep them from germinating in the windrow when swathed,” he explains. “However, that trait also allows them to stay dormant for up to 2 years, depending on soil conditions and rainfall.”
Marc says there are often trade-offs with other seed varieties, too. For example, varieties that are high in yield tend to have lower protein levels.
“We just try to make sure we grow the best varieties for this area,” Marc says. “That means looking for the best possible mix of yield, disease resistance, standability and high protein. If the producer doesn’t have livestock and a need for the straw, they often want a shorter variety, as well.”
To obtain and propagate the newest varieties, Marc works with SeCan, a 25-year-old Canadian seed association of which he is a member. “SeCan bids on new varieties as they become available,” he explains. “Then we [the seed growers] apply for seed from those varieties that we can, in turn, multiply to a point where we can offer them to our customers.
“That means we’ve grown the variety for at least a couple seasons before it gets to the customer’s farm,” says Marc. “So we’re not only growing the newest genetics available, but we’re propagating them in the community where customers can determine for themselves how well the plants’ traits fit their unique operation.”