Wes Swieter backed up his pickup truck to the loading dock at Albert Lea Seed House, making his annual run to buy triticale. He had ordered 22 bags of a particular variety of that seed, a cross between wheat and rye, that he can find only at the 95-year-old company.

"It makes good cow feed when you chop it," Swieter said. "I called up to see what they had on hand, and being as they had it in stock, I told them to put my name on it."

As soon as the ground thaws, Swieter will be planting the seed with alfalfa on 15 acres of his farm in Ackley, Iowa.

Tens of thousands of farmers have patronized the seed company since its founding in 1923. Now in its third generation, Albert Lea Seed House has adjusted with the times, becoming more of a distribution center than general store and surviving by recognizing its changing customers and providing a wide variety of seeds that farmers like Swieter can't find through co-ops and the agricultural behemoths.

When Tom and Mac Ehrhardt took over the seed company from their father in the 1970s, much of their business came from producers like Swieter.

"Farmers in pickups would come in and buy soup to nuts," said Tom Ehrhardt. "They'd buy some oats, alfalfa, corn, a little clover, a little pasture grass, and maybe sweet corn and tomatoes for the garden, so it was a whole grocery list of things."

Now, 40 years later, "lots of those small farms have disappeared, and we don't see as many individual farmers coming in this time of year as we once did," he said.

A larger chunk of Albert Lea's sales now involve semitrailer trucks picking up pallets of seeds for farmers who plant thousands of acres.

Producers in the state will plant more than 15 million acres of corn and soybeans alone in 2018, according to a federal report on prospective planting issued last week. That means the farms, if they haven't already, are now picking up the seeds they need to produce their crops.

Many family seed operations have disappeared or become more specialized in recent years, although no one has been tracking the specific numbers, said Denise Thiede, section manager in the plant protection division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The corn and soybean market is dominated by companies such as DowDuPont, Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta China, she said, which all have developed breeding programs and genetically modified those seeds for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, or both.

The vast majority of crop farmers buy and plant seeds with those genetic traits, Thiede said, and the big ag co-ops are moving the most seed.

Albert Lea Seed House is unusual, she said, because it offers hundreds of varieties of seeds from the Midwest and elsewhere, including organic seeds, non-GMO corn and soybean seeds, native grass and wildflower seeds for conservation land, and cover crop seeds such as ryegrass, clover, radish, turnips, buckwheat and millet.

"They span the whole gamut of seeds, and there aren't many companies left who have that same diversity of offerings," Thiede said.

Organics, non-GMO seeds

The Ehrhardts said organic corn and soybeans make up about half their sales, and they ship to organic farmers all across the northeastern third of the U.S., including the largest markets in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, but also in Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Maine.

They also sell non-GMO corn and soybeans, mostly within a 150-mile radius of Albert Lea. That market is growing for farmers who sell to food companies such as General Mills that want to label their products as non-GMO, and also for farmers who want to pay less for seed that is cheaper without genetic traits.

The Ehrhardts said they focus on selling non-GMO and organic seed, some under their own Viking brand, because they expect steady growth in that market in the future. Even though they are a small regional seed company by big ag standards, business has nearly doubled during the past 10 years with about $25 million in sales last year and 35 year-round employees.

The seed house is active all year, they said. Seeds by the truckful arrive daily from seed growers across the Midwest, Canada and even Europe, they said, and need to be cleaned in mechanical screens that remove weed seeds, dead seeds, dirt, chaff and other debris. Many of the seeds that are certified for purity or as organic must be handled separately with their own paper trail to prove where they were grown and how they were transported and processed.

"We're receiving seed, cleaning seed, selling seed, distributing seed, planning for next year, and trying to keep all this stuff straight," said Mac Ehrhardt. The company also packages the seed, usually in 50-pound bags, 2,000-pound totes or 2,500-pound boxes, and labels each with information tags detailing lot numbers, place of origin and other characteristics.

"We're also testing seed every day for purity, for germination, and to make sure there's no weeds in it," he said. The company is also among the first in the nation to guarantee the purity of its non-GMO seeds.

Before it is cleaned, "dirty" seed is stored in huge outdoor bins. The packaged, cleaned and labeled products are staged for sale and shipping in a 70,000-square-foot warehouse and on a large retail floor for customers to inspect or buy in smaller quantities.

Less engineered, less costly

While the company is selling and shipping seeds to farmers to plant in 2018, it is also making final arrangements with contract farmers who will be growing the seeds that the seed house will be selling next year at this time.

Although the vast majority of conventional corn and soybean farmers plant seeds with genetic traits, the Ehrhardts are seeing increased demand from conventional farmers who want the old-style seeds without traits, or with fewer traits. The main driver is that seeds with less technology built into them are naturally less expensive — in some cases only half the cost of the latest "stacked trait" seeds from the big seed companies.

That's something that Thiede in the state Agriculture Department has also noticed after watching the seed industry during the past 20 years.

"The big companies are selling seed with all the technology stacked together, and it costs a lot," she said. "There are people out there that are looking for less technology so that they can control their seed costs. With commodity prices as low as they have been, any additional premium is helpful to a farmer."

For Swieter, the cattle rancher from Iowa, the goal is more about growing a high-quality feed. What has made him a repeat customer at the Albert Lea Seed House every spring for the past decade is the hard-to-find seed mixes — in his case triticale mixed with pea seeds — that he prefers for his herd, and his own enjoyment.

"You want to see something beautiful in that field when those peas bloom," he said. "A pea blossom is a maroon and a white blossom together, and they keep up with the triticale in height. You see a sea of blooms out there. It's gorgeous."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388