Wayne Gale Asks: How Did Dan Barber Get It So Wrong?

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By now, I’m sure most of you have seen the New York Times opinion piece by Celebrity Chef Dan Barber. Barber makes some sweeping generalizations that mischaracterize the changes in plant breeding and the seed industry over the past 100-plus years.

Barber has taken an active role in the seed industry, even co-founding his own seed company; but he grossly misses the mark in his article. The evolution of this great industry is due to the incredible investment — of both the public and private sectors — of time and money in critical research and development. This forward-thinking investment by seed companies, plant breeders, geneticists, agronomists and many others, has dramatically increased the understanding of what, genetically and biologically, makes a plant do what it does — ensuring we are well-prepared to meet whatever challenges come our way in global food and agriculture production.

Wayne Gale is the owner of Stokes Seeds.

I agree with Barber that crop production across the U.S. has changed dramatically. It’s had to, as farmers, ranchers and other agriculture producers are facing a number of challenges impacting their livelihoods. To stay competitive, they are being forced to do more with less, to produce higher yielding crops on fewer acres, with the use of fewer resources. At the same time, the agriculture community is dealing with rapidly-evolving plant pests and diseases, as well as a changing climate. In addition, a myriad of other issues like labor and harvesting, packaging and shipping, government regulation and so much more — many of which, at some level, can be addressed through plant breeding.

This industry is a lot more than row crops, and it’s a lot more than 100 companies, as Barber implies. As someone involved in the leadership of the American Seed Trade Association, and who has worked in the vegetable seed sector for more than 30 years, I know full well the tremendous diversity and reach of this business we call “seed.” From seed companies and farmers, to distributors and technology providers, our industry is dynamic and wide-ranging. From organic, to traditional, to biotech, the seed industry offers farmers and consumers unprecedented choices when it comes to performance and variety.

For farmers, this means the ability to produce new and improved varieties of better-performing and more sustainable crops.

For consumers, this means access to a variety of new and improved food options like: carrots with increased beta-carotene, which improves both the appearance and nutritional profile; fruits and vegetables that are more convenient and appealing for consumers, like personal-sized seedless watermelons, mini-peppers and grape tomatoes; better tasting produce that is more likely to become part of a healthy diet, like butternut squash with an unusually rich, sweet, starchy flavor; and new varieties of fruits and vegetables, such as broccolini, kale and improved varieties of cauliflower. I would guess that Barber has served many of these things at his restaurant. And none of them would exist without modern plant breeding!

It is true that the seed industry and the grower community spend tens of millions of dollars on plant breeding and plant science issues on an annual basis. These efforts work to address many of the issues highlighted in the article, such as: how to breed heirloom flavors in conventional market tomatoes; how to create greening disease resistant citrus trees; how to enhance healthy oils in crops like soybeans and sorghum; how to enhance flavors in leafy green lettuce varieties; and a multitude of other innovative research and discovery projects across the vast crop production in the U.S. — with benefits for our planet, our health and our food.

Plant breeding will continue to evolve because that’s what breeders, geneticists and others do — they discover and create new varieties on a regular basis. Science changes, and I imagine that Gregoire Mendel would be very proud of where the plant breeding and plant science community has evolved to from his very early genetic discoveries with his peas. A failure of U.S. agriculture to continue innovating and evolving would handcuff producers, of every production type — from conventional to organic to biotech. The seed industry has and will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of famers and the changing demands consumers, and yes, even chefs.

Who is the Farmer of 2040?

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One research firm set out to better understand the psychology of the farmers who are most likely to lead the industry in 2040 and the implications for retailers and those who seek to serve them.

If you had a crystal ball to look 20-plus years into the future, would you? Sometimes knowing the future can be scary because it might not look anything like what you want or expect. Maybe there’s little, or even no, resemblance of today.

Who are your customers? What do they value? How do they operate? That’s the vision Brett Sciotto, president and CEO of Aimpoint Research, tried to paint for attendees of the American Seed Trade Association’s Policy and Leadership Development Conference in Denver, Colo.

“Who is the Farmer of 2040 and what will they require of us?” Those are the questions Sciotto and his team set out to answer with when they believed clients weren’t looking far enough over the horizon. Through qualitative and quantitative research, Aimpoint Research revealed the psychology of the farmers who are most likely to lead the industry in 2040 and both internal and external factors impacting their success.

In short, Sciotto said the “Farmer of 2040” will require a lot of things of seed companies and those who seek to serve them.

“They have a completely different view than what we are used to serving, and they certainly have a different view than a lot of institutions of agriculture are prepared to serve,” Sciotto said. “These farmers are going to be educated. They are going to have a high business IQ.

“They are going to be focused on ROI, and if you want to be a supplier, you better be, too. You better be as smart or smarter than they are. You better be thinking about a competitive advantage that you offer or a value-add. Being the local guy doesn’t matter at all … They want best in class. They want a competitive advantage and they are willing to adopt things early. They are willing to experiment and innovate, and they are willing to put some money into it.”

During the company’s research, which looked at primary farm operators in the United States 55 years of age and younger, the farmers of today segmented into five classes: independent elites, enterprising business builders, classic practitioners, self-reliant traditionals and the lifestylers.

You can listen to Sciotto describe each of these groups in the audio link at the bottom.

Sciotto’s predicts that by 2040 the majority of farmers who retailers will seek to contend with and to serve come from either the independent elites, comprising 20% of farmers, or the enterprising business builders, comprising 21% of farmers.

When you start to compare these groups to each other, Sciotto said the group that really stands out is the enterprising business builders — a group that is aggressively focused on growth.

Sciotto described they have the highest business IQ, are very financially sound and willing to borrow money to keep investing. The enterprising business builders, he said, are highly innovative and not at all traditional or encumbered by the past.

“These are the ones who are pushing to vertically integrate and to find new ways to do business and to create a competitive advantage,” Sciotto said, noting that 64% of this group expanded and strengthened their operation in the past five years. “These difficult times in agriculture aren’t so difficult for this bunch. In fact, they don’t believe their success is in anyone’s hands but their own. They are an aggressive bunch that is doing quite well.”

However, Sciotto red-flagged that this group is also the least brand loyal — a troublesome spot for companies that rely on relationships or brand loyalty to carry sales.

The farmer of 2040 is … “ROI focused,” he said. “They are competitively focused. They want an advantage from whoever they work with. While they want relationships — just like everyone in the industry — they will leave you in a heartbeat if they can find a better way to accomplish their goals and grow.”

What’s important, he said, is not to think of this group as cheaper.

“This group recognizes value-adds for best in class, for doing it the best or optimal way,” he said. “But if you aren’t the best in class, they will leave you. They are the ones charging the hill, and I think this group will be the largest group in agriculture come 2040, so you need to be thinking about them.”

When compared to the other groups, Sciotto said the enterprising business builders over index on growth potential, business IQ, a willingness to change and financial health. They way over-perform when it comes to open mindedness, as they are very adaptable and very willing to surrender independence to get to the next level. They are very entrepreneurial.

Regardless of the group a farmer comes from or falls into, Sciotto said they all agree that farming and agriculture are fundamentally changing and that to be successful, they are going to have to fundamentally change too.

Some farmers, Sciotto said, admit that they aren’t going to change or worry they won’t be able to navigate the changes. Today 105,000 farms produce three-quarters of the output of ag value, he said, predicting that by 2040, there will be fewer than 75,000 farmers doing more than 75% of agricultural output in the United States.

“This means you are going to have really big farms and a whole lot of small ones,” he said. “We are seeing this bifurcation of farms, that collapse of the middle, and we are seeing this right now.”

That will accelerate, Sciotto said, adding that his number of 75,000 is optimistic. These big farmers aren’t just going to be farming across state lines. They will be farming across country lines. They will be multinational farmers.

Does the CSGA Need a New Membership Model?

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It’s common knowledge that the Canadian Seed Growers Association has 3,500 members. But is that really the case? It might not be.

The Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) is looking at the possibility of dramatically changing its membership structure in order to prepare for the formation of a new seed entity as outlined by the Seed Synergy Collaboration Project proposal.

“In a new organization you’re trying to bring together groups that all have a different basis for membership. It’s not a business-as-usual proposal,” says CSGA executive director Glyn Chancey, who spoke about the idea at the Saskatchewan Seed Growers Association annual meeting in Saskatoon in January.

“You’re going to be sharing your power — it will be distributed among a larger group. The proposal here is to adjust our membership model to a more business-oriented one.”

The Seed Synergy white paper, unveiled to members late last year, proposes to create a more efficient and effective seed industry organizational model to deliver seed certification services under a “modernized seed regulatory framework” by creating and implementing a single, consolidated national seed organization.

Currently, CSGA has over 3,500 official members. That number is composed of both individual seed growers and seed companies — 2,500 of its “members” are actually seed businesses and not individual people.

“In many cases those farms have three or more people working on the farm who all have to have a membership to be recognized,” Chancey says.

As a result, he says CSGA is looking to build a core sustaining membership class to focus more on businesses.

“Other organizations, like the Canadian Seed Trade Association, are built on business memberships. What we need to be thinking of are other membership classes to [recognize the diversity of our membership].”

Laurie Wakefield, one of the SSGA’s representatives on the CSGA national board, says CSGA has had issues surrounding membership for a while. He says now is the time for CSGA to create the ideal membership structure so that seed growers are best served by their national association.

“We’ve had discussion that our membership could be as high as 8,000. We just don’t know. A single farm unit might have six actual people involved in production of seed. It’s time to explore who the clients are we’re providing services for and who we’re doing advocacy for,” Wakefield says.