Seed scarcity could stall corn farmers eager to plant

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Companies are warning farmers that seed supply could be short this year. Syngenta, the nation's third-largest seller of seed corn, saw its production last summer fall 15 to 25 percent short of expectations. Pictured in this fild photo is a cornfield near Lake Park, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

After a year of extraordinary profits pushed by high corn prices, Minnesota farmers are looking forward to planting season.

But their hopes of another strong season may be threatened by a growing scarcity of seed corn. That doesn't bode well for spring planting of Minnesota's $6.7 billion corn crop.

The weather last spring and summer served up just about every headache that seed corn growers have ever experienced, all in a few months. In Minnesota and northern portions of the corn belt, the spring was too wet, delaying planting and hurting yields.

Meanwhile, a historic drought cut production in southern areas of the United States. By late summer that dry weather had found its way north, cutting yields.

The nation's third-largest seller of seed corn, Syngenta, which has its seed headquarters in the Twin Cities, saw its production last summer fall 15 to 25 percent short of expectations, said Eric Boersma, corn genetics portfolio manager for the company.

Boersmal said that already is limiting the company's ability to supply farmers preparing for spring.

"Certainly there are some hybrids that are getting to be tight," he said. "Some of your top-tier hybrids are probably close to sold out."

Boesma said Syngenta could make up some of that lost production over the winter months, when the company buys seed corn raised in South America. But he said that won't fill all the gaps.

"We didn't necessarily try making up all of it," Boersma said. "Really, with expensive as South American production is, you really need to rationalize what you got to have."

Other major seed companies experienced the same sorts of problems.

Pioneer Hi-Bred business director Patrick Yockey said the nation's second largest seed company lost about 15 percent of its production last summer to poor weather. He said hybrids designed for short growing seasons, like those used in northwest Minnesota's Red River Valley, were among the varieties hurt most.

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The seed shortfall is a growing concern for farmers as spring planting approaches. Compounding the problem is that there's probably never been a time in history when farmers are more eager to plant corn. A farm in Jackson County is pictured in this photo taken Thursday, June 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Yockey said the situation is so bad that in some cases Pioneer has to do something which is generally a business no-no: tell the customer they should try another seed company.

"That would be our method of handling that," Yockey said. "We don't want surprises at planting time. So we try to be very open and very up-front with our growers so that they have a clear picture of what we're able to supply."

In central Minnesota near Hutchinson, Tom Carlson, an agronomist for Gold Country Seed, said the company is delivering seed to farmers but is feeling the effects of reduced seed supplies.

"I would consider this to be a very tight season," he said.

Carlson said the company sells about two dozen different types of corn seed. Their products are tailored to meet all sorts of growing conditions, including long or short crop seasons and different soil types.

He said the same bad weather that hurt supplies nationwide caused problems for seed corn growers close by.

"Last summer we had a major wind storm come through in July," Carlson said. "And it created a lot of problems in the corn fields. With something called 'green snap' or wind damage, and it hurt it pretty bad."

The seed shortfall is a growing concern for farmers as spring planting approaches, Minnesota Corn Growers Association President John Mages said, recalling a recent conversation with a seed dealer.

"He said if somebody came in right now that didn't have any seed ordered and said he wanted a thousand acres of seed corn, that they'd definitely have a hard getting it for him," Mages said.

Compounding the problem is that there's probably never been a time in history when farmers are more eager to plant corn. Prices are very high. At about $6.20 per bushel, corn prices are so high that they will make for big profits.

Illinois-based agricultural consultant Michael Cordonnier said farmers can earn about $150 more on an acre of corn compared to an acre of soybeans. If a farmer has 1,000 acres, that's an extra $150,000. Cordonnier said he expects the lure of that extra profit will lead farmers to increase corn plantings by as many as three million more acres this year.

"I'm looking at between 94 and 95 million acres being planted for corn," Cordonnier said.

Farmers will find out in the next few months whether there is enough seed available to plant that much land.