John's World: The Lost Art of Seeduction

July 26, 2013 03:25 PM
John Phipps

Call me a hopeless romantic, but there used to be more sighs and moans of assorted nature in our business. Nowhere was the flirtation and enticement more intense than in the turbulent relationship between farmers and seed corn salesmen.

With seemingly dozens of suitors, farmers chose seed suppliers for sound business reasons: the salesman was your brother-in-law; the variety was planted next to your field last year and was a six-month source of envy; free stuff—the more bizarre the better; or it’s what Dad planted.

But instead of the persuasion of shiny trinkets or family guilt, we are now subjected to sobering, fate-of-the-universe arguments. Choosing the right match could mean the difference between productive bliss and a season of despair. Somewhere out there is your "soilmate" hybrid.

The only problem is we now know the differences between the candidates are mostly subjective and useful only if you can predict the future. Drought-resistance, for example, is not that helpful when your farm seems to be the fabled place where the "sun don’t shine," currently called "Iowa." It is like choosing a date based on her popularity only to discover you can’t stand her friends.

Somewhere out there is your "soilmate" hybrid

How to choose? Meanwhile, the selection process has exploded into the complexity of ordering a sub sandwich: "White, wheat, rye or sourdough? Sweet or dill? Folded left or right?" For instance, while variety numbers often follow a rational format, the scheme varies from company to company and is rapidly replaced with an even more rational system, just when you think you know what the 8th number signifies. It could be that possessing the skill to interpret these cryptographic labels is a sign of full fellowship in the Inner Seed Circle, like knowing the fraternity handshake.

Of course, it could be an antimnemonic campaign: make the seed identification resistant to memorization so that customers won’t realize how quickly they change. Indeed, the half-life for a hybrid might be as short as six weeks, especially if it was the fluke winner the year before and threatens to hog all the attention when warehouses are bulging with also-ran hybrids. Like, you can only choose from what’s there, even if you do lie about your yield history and Photoshop your acreage.

Full of options. But the real passion-killer has to be the option list. Instead of just falling for the Stalk of Your Dreams, you have to accessorize it with traits. And boy howdy, does it get interesting then.

All during the off-season, seed companies have been swapping GM traits like Kardashian videos. The rationale seems to be if you can’t "beat em’, add ‘em."

The result is—just like combines, pickups and hamburgers—most buyers order their seed "loaded."

The result is a seed tag that looks like a NASCAR jacket. Not to mention, more traits justify a higher price tag, even with traits as useful as a cassette player on an ATV.

In a strange coincidence, these shoot-the-works varieties seem to be in great supply and win 97% of all test plots. By some statistical miracle, every company’s literature proclaims their own numbers as the champions.

However, this year there is uneasiness in farm country that long-predicted low commodity prices will finally come true and destroy our profit margin while seed and other inputs remain stubbornly high.

The Father of Economics, Adam Smith, predicted this centuries ago. While many are familiar with his "Invisible Hand" theory, historians recently uncovered a second principle written on the backside of the page: "The Invisible Finger" (and we’re pretty sure which digit it is).

I anticipate a tried-and-true farmer response to achieve some leverage: Serial Supplier Substitution. Miraculously, after having seen the New-Customer-Introductory-Pricing Light, our hearts will be moved to switch our entire order to a different supplier annually instead of rationing it out like Halloween candy. This altar call will be repeated each year to capture the considerable perks for the biggest and most fickle converts.

Could we return to those innocent days of lighthearted seed courtship? Probably not. Most of us now have Democrat expectations and Republican compromise skills. Too bad we can’t just let the seed choose us. That system turned out OK for our last
attempt at romance.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report." Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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