One of the big challenges facing organic and non-GMO farmers is getting good seed varieties for their crop productions. Albert Lea Seed, a family-owned, Minnesota-based seed supplier, is stepping up to help those farmers by transitioning its entire Viking Seed Corn & Soybeans seed line to 100 percent non-GMO varieties.
The business changes reinforce the company’s commitment to “non-traited” (seed that is free of genetically modified traits) solutions for organic farming, an area of specialty for Albert Lea Seed for more than 20 years.
“We’re excited about this transition,” said Albert Lea Seed owner Mac Ehrhardt. “We see big opportunities in organic, and we’re eager to lead the way in developing non-traited seed for our organic and conventional farmers.”
The switch to non-GMO varieties was a commonsense business decision since organic and non-GMO seed were the fastest-growing areas of their business.
“There’s a value in focusing our business,” he says. “We sell a lot more non-GMO and organic corn and soybeans than traited (GM) seed. A lot of other companies do a good job selling traited seed; we do a good job selling non-GMO and organic.”
Albert Lea Seed is also responding to increasing consumer demand for non-GMO and organic foods. Sales of organic food topped $40 billion in 2015, and foods labeled as non-GMO have grown from $12.9 billion in 2012 to $21.2 billion as of April 2016, according to Nielsen. A growing number of farmers are moving to or considering planting non-GMO corn and soybeans as well as organic grains due primarily to the premium prices they can earn.
Expansion of organic seed line
Albert Lea Seed has a long-standing presence in the Midwest. Mac’s grandfather Lou founded the company in 1923. Albert Lea Seed’s seed sales are predominantly conventional varieties with organic seed accounting for about 30 percent of sales. Another five percent is garden seeds; the company also operates a retail garden store at its Albert Lea, Minnesota headquarters.
Albert Lea Seed is expanding its line of organic seeds; they were one of the first seed companies in the U.S. to offer certified organic field seed. They have had systems in place for isolation and minimizing commingling for two decades, giving them a depth of experience in producing non-GMO and organic seed.
Organic seed varieties include corn, soybeans, alfalfa, red and white clover, pasture grasses, sweet corn, oats, wheat, barley, winter rye, and buckwheat, among others.
“Our certified organic seed sales will be a big part of our business,” Ehrhardt says. “We try to stay in front of that by making good organic hybrids available to farmers.”
Albert Lea Seed supplies organic seed to farmers in the upper Midwest and Northeast states.
Ultra-Pure non-GMO corn
Ehrhardt has also seen demand grow for conventional and non-GMO corn and soybean seeds.
“We’ve sold a lot more conventional non-traited corn and soybeans than traited in the past few years,” he says. “Farmers are looking for ways to cut costs, and conventional corn costs less than GM corn.”
To help minimize GMO contamination for non-GMO and organic farmers, Albert Lea Seeds is introducing new Viking Ultra-Pure Corn varieties that are 99.9 percent pure non-GMO.
“Ultra-Pure Corn allows farmers to plant seed with confidence knowing they did everything to prevent (GMO) contamination up front,” Ehrhardt says.
There are also plans to develop non-GMO corn seed varieties for food use, according to Ehrhardt. “We will conduct research in new varieties for milling and masa flour in a non-GMO format,” he says.
Albert Lea Seed has several organic seed varieties including oats, wheat, and barley that are Non-GMO Project verified.
Ehrhardt emphasizes that his company’s switch to non-GMO was not a value judgment against GM seed.
“We are pro-farmer,” he says. “Multiple streams of agriculture exist. It’s just that we are better focusing on a space where we have some leadership and expertise, and it makes sense to focus our Viking brand on that.”
To continue serving its farmer customers who want GM corn and soybean seeds, Albert Lea Seed has become a distributor for North Star Genetics, a supplier of GM seeds.
While honoring farmers’ choices to grow what’s best for their farms, Ehrhardt appreciates the benefits that organic farming brings to rural communities.
“People argue about the benefits of organic. But organic farmers can make a living on fewer acres, and rural America is better with more family farms, which organic fosters,” he says. “No one can dispute that.”