Do you remember these hybrid seed corn companies and their colorful signs identifying their field test plots and farm fields along country roads years ago: Teweles; Crows; PAG; Trojan; Jacques; Super Crost; Edwin Blaney & Sons; Kaltenberg; Funks G, and Renk?
If you remember them all, you have a sharp memory or have been farming for a good many years because nine of these 10 once well-known hybrid seed corn companies are long gone.
All were once upon a time family owned and very popular in Wisconsin and some had national fame. Today, memories of their signs, farm magazine advertising, and baseball caps with their company name are only popular among farm memorabilia collectors and on E-Bay.
The only company listed above that is still thriving as an independent, family-owned farm seed company is Renk Seed at Sun Prairie. Most of the others have long since been purchased by big seed companies as the owners found it logical to get out for family reasons or couldn't turn down the money offered by upcoming marketing powerhouses - many not previously in the farm seed business.
Each had its own story , most based on family farmers with an innovative streak, lots of ambition, a willingness to gamble on the unknown, hard work and ultimate success. But, they are now gone.
Not so with the Renk Family at Sun Prairie, and their Renk Seed company who are not only still producing seed corn (and other farm seeds) but are thriving as a regional grower/marketer. In fact, they recently announced a $12 million expansion that will double their seed processing capabilities (from 225,000 to 525,000 bushels), more than double storage of bulk grains and increase by one-third the storage area for bags of seed at the company's headquarters.
A new processing facility is being built for soybeans. When finished, the old facility will be dedicated to seed corn. Each will have the ability to process 500,000 bags of seed a year, Jeff Renk, director of sales and research said.
"The dominant reason for expansion is the growth of our business," he says. "We are building to keep up with the demand."
The Renk Family has been raising seed corn for a long time, since the mid 1930s and farming for even longer - since 1846 - when Joseph and Katherine Renk left Bavaria, Germany, and found a farm in the town of Bristol just north of Sun Prairie.
The farm grew on the rich soil of northeastern Dane county as the family raised crops, sheep, beef and dairy cows.
"In the early 1930s all farms were struggling," Jeff Renk continues. "William Renk, Joseph's grandson, and his sons Walter and Wilbur were running the farm." They saw the value of the new corn varieties that were just being developed and hybrid corn was the "hot and new" technology of the day .
By 1936 the Renk Family was selling hybrid seed corn under the name of William F. Renk and Sons making them one of the early hybrid producers in the state.
That was also the year that the family made an unusual move: They incorporated the farm to become the first farm family in the US to do so.
"The sons Walter and Wilbur were not getting paid during those hard times," Jeff says. "So in order to keep them involved on the farm, dad, William issued $15,000 worth of preferred stock (the value of the entire farm) and common stock with zero value and the family stayed together."
The Renk family weathered the Depression as Walter and William and a younger brother Robert grew their livestock enterprise including feeding 4,000 steers in the late 1960s.
In 1968, the next generation of Renks - John and Richard (Walter's sons) and Steve (Wilbur's son) - took over management of the farm and seed business.
"It wasn't until 1969 that the seed business got as big as the livestock enterprise," Jeff adds. "In 1990, we got out of the livestock business and you can still see some of the barns and yards that remain."
In the 1970s Renk Seed grew dramatically with expansion into Canada and Europe and began selling alfalfa seed. Soybeans were added in 1992 and genetically enhanced technology was incorporated into the operation as it became available - soybeans in 1996, corn in '97 and '98.
As the family had done for well over a 100 years, the next generation of Renks assumed management and ownership of the farm and business as Alex (John's son) and Jeff and Brett (Richard's sons) took over in 2000 and remain so today.
Jeff has an agronomy degree and Alex and Brett are both ag engineers and as did their fathers, all graduated from the U.W.-Madison.
Renk seed is primarily raised on the home farm near Sun Prairie as it has for over 70 years and the current expansion is not something new for this progressive family-owned operation.
Plans to sell more seed
How does the company plan to sell more farm seeds in light of the consolidation of the industry, is the question?
Jeff Renk, director of sales, feels that many farmers like to buy from independent, family-owned companies. "The large companies do a great job of research (in fact, we license genetic traits from them) but we excel in working with farmer customers," he says. "Then there are still companies going out of business and their customers will seek us."
What is there unique about the Renk Family that has kept them working together as a family and progressing for so many years?
"Maybe because the family was always far thinking, " Jeff says. "Each generation got the next generation involved early on by sharing management, responsibilities and ownership."
The threesome operate as a team: Alex heads soybean and alfalfa production and administration, Jeff is the sales director and corn manager, and Brett is the overall production manager.
Some Wisconsinites may remember the current generation's grand fathers: William Renk helped set up the Production Credit Association in Wisconsin and Michigan. Wilbur Renk was one of the founding members for the World Dairy Expo. Walter and Richard Renk were instrumental in getting the UW-Madison Veterinary school started and set up an agriculture business degree at the UW. Both served on the U.W Board of Regents.
The current generation's fathers grew the Renk Seed business in the transition from a major livestock farm and incorporated modern farming and seed technology. Of the threesome, only Richard still has ties to the company serving as chairman of the board; John tragically died in a farm accident in 1986 and Steve Renk retired some years ago.
Today there are less than a half dozen family owned, independent farm seed producers/marketers remaining in Wisconsin and perhaps a hundred nationwide.
Renk Seeds are indeed "family" and plan to be around for a long time. Just look at the ongoing new construction or talk to Alex, Jeff or Brett. You'll see.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.