It’s easy to overlook the common and ordinary seed when so much about modern farming, from tractors to storage bins, is large in scale.
But seeds are big business for international conglomerates such as Syngenta, which not only sell the seeds but develop technologies to make them better.
Corn, soybeans, wheat and other seeds are increasingly being treated — coated with mixtures of fungicides, insecticides and other chemicals — to protect them from insects and diseases during the first few weeks after planting, without hurting the harvested food coming from the crops.
“These coatings help really to defend that seed so it can germinate and reach its genetic potential,” said Palle Pedersen, head of product marketing for Syngenta’s Seedcare business. “It’s the farmer’s insurance that the seed he has purchased, he’s also going to get good yield from.”
Though based in Switzerland, the multibillion-dollar Syngenta has major operations in Minnesota, including its U.S. seed headquarters in Minnetonka and the North American Seedcare Institute in Stanton, which is expanding like the seed care industry itself.
The highly competitive seed treatment market in North America is $600 million annually and growing rapidly, Syngenta says.
To take advantage of the growth, Syngenta has begun a $20 million expansion in Stanton, which is in Goodhue County near Northfield.
Syngenta expanded the Seedcare Institute to 5,000 square feet in 2005. The latest expansion, set for completion in fall 2016, will add 38,000 square feet of high-tech laboratories for research and development and various kinds of testing, plus a state-of-the-art training facility.
Pedersen showed off the site last week at Syngenta’s 412-acre research campus about 10 miles east of Northfield, where the company also employs about 70 full-time and 70 seasonal workers to conduct research on corn breeding, plant pathology, entomology, sweet corn development and other projects.
Evidence of farmers treating seeds has been found dating back to 2000 B.C. Syngenta got into the market in 1979 and now sells coatings under brands such as Concep, Apron and Maxim.
As the market has grown, it has become more sophisticated and exact, applied by calibrated equipment. As the technology advances, more players are getting into or increasing their footprint in the field.
For example, the DuPont Pioneer company last month opened a 20,000-square-foot seed treatment research and education center in Johnston, Iowa, near Des Moines. And Bayer CropScience in July opened a $12 million facility in Shakopee that designs and makes the machinery that will coat seeds in the U.S., Brazil, China and other countries.
Last week, Pedersen, the Syngenta marketing head, watched as a group of people who buy the liquid coating were trained in how to apply it. The buff-colored pea-sized soybean seeds were blown through a rotating chamber, sprayed with a pink-colored chemical mix, and swooshed into a hopper. It took three minutes to process a small batch, enough to plant about 25 acres.
Often in late April or May, seeds are especially vulnerable to insects and diseases in the soil, Pedersen said. The coatings get the plants through this time as they germinate and sprout.
They also offer some early season advantages for the environment, said Deanna Smith, marketing specialist for seed treatments at MFA Inc. in Columbia, Mo.
“If you apply chemicals over a field, only a very small portion is actually going to help the plant, and the rest is going into soil or into water,” she said. “If you apply it directly to the seed, it’s right where you need it, when you need it. And if you can protect that seed from the get-go, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.”
Syngenta’s role is to develop and refine different chemical and biological “recipes” for the seeds, said Tim Kroenke, head of Syngenta’s Seedcare business in North America. The goal is to integrate the insecticides, fungicides, nematicides that kill small worms, biologicals like bacteria and even micronutrients so that all can be coated or sprayed on the seed at the same time in just the right amounts.
The research includes not only developing compatible recipes, he said, but also testing to ensure that polymers used to adhere the coatings won’t clog farmers’ planters or flake off to create excessive dust.
Kroenke said the North American market for treated seeds has doubled in the past decade. Some of it is driven by growers trying to increase the health of their crops, and therefore of their yields, he said. And as seeds have become more expensive with the advent of genetic modifications, he said, growers are willing to invest more to protect that seed.
Markets and Markets, a global research and consulting firm, puts the worldwide seed treatment market at $924.5 million in 2013 and projects it will grow to $1.4 billion by 2019.
Whether farmers think that seeds need treatment and will pay for it depends on the crop and the risks associated with where and when it’s planted.
Almost all seed corn and canola seeds have a coating of a fungicide and one or more insecticides, Pedersen said, and about 50 percent of cereals are treated. The greatest recent growth has been in soybeans, which by some estimates have jumped from about 50 to 80 percent treatment in the past several years.
The institute works not only with Midwest corn, wheat and soybeans, he said, but also with most other crops in North America, including vegetables from California and Florida, cotton from the mid-South, and cereals from the Pacific Northwest.
Much of the seed coating chemistry is developed initially in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, the other large base for Syngenta’s U.S. operations, and then further refined and tested for practical applications at its Stanton research center.
Syngenta is the largest crop protection company in the world, and the third-largest seed company. It agreed on Thursday to sell its vegetable seed business as part of its attempts to appease shareholders after rejecting a Monsanto merger bid. While any future deal could affect other Minnesota operations, the Seedcare Institute is not part of that division.
The Stanton expansion, Kroenke said, will include space to train as many as 1,000 wholesale seed dealers and co-op marketers each year in what seed coatings are available or in development, and how to apply those coatings. Corn seed is usually coated by a seed company and sold to producers, he said, but soybeans are often treated by a local retailer or cooperative shortly before they are sold to a grower.
“I call it the full-meal deal,” said Greg Finlay, director of seed treatments at WinField Solutions, a Land O’Lakes company. “The farmer buys the seed, and orders the insecticide, the fungicide and sometimes other things on it all at the same time. When he’s ready for that seed in the spring, he’ll call up the dealer and tell him to get the seed ready and treat it up so he can come and get it.”
Finlay said WinField purchases Syngenta mixtures and distributes them to its own dealers who are cooperatives. He’s excited about the prospect for better treatments in the future, especially coatings that will use natural biological insecticides and fungicides that are now being developed.
“With the push for a greener planet, and the [Environmental Protection Agency] flexing its muscle every other day, it’s important that companies stay on top of anything that’s available in the industry, and this facility [in Stanton] will help them do that,” he said.