By Dick Hagen
Minnesota community prospers with talent and technology
The first thing you see as you drive into Olivia, Minn., is a 52'-tall ear of corn mounted on top of a gazebo. As surely as New York’s Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, Olivia’s elevated icon celebrates the community’s agricultural abundance, talent and research.
More intriguing is the fact that 14 seed research companies call Olivia home. How did a tiny town in south central Minnesota become a magnet for these big players?
Located 100 miles north of the Iowa border, this agricultural community of 2,682 people is the seat of Renville County, which perennially ranks as one of the top five corn production counties in the U.S.—and, routinely, the No. 1 corn and soybean production county in Minnesota.
"This area has a reputation as a highly engaged agricultural area," says Jeff Posch, northern breeding regional leader for Dow AgroSciences. "From a research perspective, it also has a history of dependable weather conditions. Olivia is recognized across the nation for its genetic research and seed production capabilities."
This past spring, Dow moved into a new $8 million research facility about 12 mile east of its Mycogen seed production/processing facility, built by Keltgen Seed Company in 1986. A multimillion-dollar research company is a far stretch from Olivia’s first seed business, the tiny Troy Seed Company, started in 1948 by the Rauenhorst family. Troy Seed expanded to become the Trojan Seed Company, which in 1972 was the eighth largest seed company in America. Other seed businesses soon sprouted from the roots of this parent company.
"We’re blessed with some of the richest soils in the upper Midwest," says longtime Olivia resident Jim Boersma, a product agronomist with DuPont Pioneer. "Thanks to the most extensive tile drainage program in America, these soils have also become some of the most dependable. Crop failure is virtually unknown in Renville County in recent years. Today we’re dealing with smarter farmers, stronger genetics, better soil conser-vation techniques and more traits to protect the genetics while also enhancing the environment."
Origins of success. Robert Thurston, president of Thurston Genetics, started at Trojan Seed Company in 1972. "You can’t identify a single factor that has made Olivia the seed capital of the world, but the real start dates back to the Rauenhorst family, who worked in conjunction with the introduction of hybrid corn in Iowa by Henry Wallace in the early 1930s," he says.
"Spin-off companies from the old Trojan Seed Company provided much of the growth of the seed industry right here in Olivia. Success breeds more ambition, and the success of
Trojan Seed spawned many new companies, including my own firm," he says.
Thurston says his original company, Thurston Inc., was purchased by BASF. "I’ve seen dozens of families over the last 40 years moving into the Olivia area, falling in love with the community and getting involved in the churches, schools and life of the town. Yet I’m certain the initial reaction of many was ‘My gosh, there’s no rivers, no lakes, no forests—just vast fields of corn, soybeans and sugar beets!
"I’ve traveled Europe, South America and across America talking to seedsmen, and they all know about Olivia," Thurston notes. "We have a cadre of farmers that perennially lead the parade when it comes to making things happen, both in agriculture and politics. There’s a can-do attitude out here that I think was spawned by Trojan Seed Company and its legendary president, Bob Rauenhorst."
To take one example, in 1968, Keith Keltgen, then research director at Trojan Seed, introduced TX 68, a 68-day three-way hybrid that he hoped might offer the opportunity to double-crop corn in the Southern states or jump into Canada. This ultra-early hybrid didn’t have enough yield punch to satisfy corn growers, but it was indicative of the open minds about hybrid development at Trojan Seed.
Remington Seeds, headquartered in Remington, Ind., moved to Olivia in 2006, taking over a seed processing facility that originated RBA Company, which later became Stauffer Seeds. General manager Bill Luepke says it was a good move for Remington because of growing demand for both earlier maturing corn and soybeans.
"But the impetus was the great climate for contract production of soybeans, plus people out here are just very receptive to the seed industry," Luepke says.
Mary Page was the mayor of Olivia during the "golden era" of the late 1960s and early ’70s. "It was exciting to see Olivia, very much a prairie town at that time, start taking on some new dimensions," she says. "The new seed companies created a cluster of creative people. An industry has stature and attracts people from far and wide. That’s why the people of our town are extremely diversified."
Talented, too. Marv Boerboom, corn geneticist with Monsanto’s DeKalb Research Center in Olivia, holds 28 patents on inbred breeding lines for corn. He started his genetic work in 1977 at Trojan Seed Company, which by then was a property of Pfizer with the seed brand of Pfizer Genetics. He’s now into his 35th year of corn genetic research at Olivia.
New kid on the block. Steve O’Neill, president of Corn Capital Innovations, decided to locate his firm in Olivia because he grew up in the area. "I’m entrenched in the culture and history of this area. I’ve worked with other seed companies and did agronomy work with a local soil service company. Interaction in the community was a natural for my wife and me, so why not start a business where you grew up?"
Situated in the same building that launched the Trojan Seed Company in the 1960s, he relishes working at one of the 14 seed companies in town. "Competition makes everybody
better. It makes people take their game to higher levels," O’Neill says.
Today, the sight of hundreds of excited teenagers bused into the Olivia area to detassel a sea of corn by hand on hot summer mornings is but a distant memory. Mechanized detasselling spoiled the fun, but that’s just the collateral damage of changing times and, unlike many rural towns that are struggling to survive, Olivia is poised to thrive. Its corporate research operations and smaller entrepreneurial brain trusts are hatching the secrets of biotechnology that will feed a growing world population.
"Growers around here are quick to adopt innovative ideas," says DuPont Pioneer agronomist Boersma. "I’d compare them with growers anywhere in the U.S. or the world. Agriculture is the lifeblood of this area and Olivia definitely deserves the title of Corn Capital of Minnesota."
Company Roll Call
- ADM Edible Bean Specialties
- BASF Plant Science
- Corn Capital Innovations
- Dow AgroSciences
- DuPont Pioneer
- Hefty Seed
- Mertec LLC
- Monsanto and its DeKalb corn research facility
- Mycogen Seeds
- Pannar Genetics
- Precision Soya
- Remington Seeds
- Renk Seed
- Thurston Genetics and Thurston Inc.