Seed World

As he Enters Retirement, Joe Funk Looks Back on a Life Covering the Seed Industry

Since 2017, Joe Funk has been a contributing writer for Seed World Group, and a dear friend to all our editorial staff. In May 2021, Joe decided to retire so he could enjoy the company of his lovely wife, Donna, and travel around the globe.


Over the past 20-plus years, as editor of another seed journal, I visited more than 250 seed companies and interviewed countless seed producers across the United States, in several Canadian provinces and in 10 or 11 nations. Without exception, I came away from these visits with nothing but pleasant memories and great respect for the men and women I met.

The seed industry is first and foremost in the people business. It just happens to sell seed. I believe the industry is universally focused on seed quality. Companies whose managers lost pride in their products and let seed quality be anything less than their highest priority are out of business.

Having pride in your product may be most important when it is least expected. One of my earliest international trips was to the seed industry in Hungary. The director of the Hungarian seed industry association was a young man educated in the United States. He spoke perfect English and was instrumental in arranging my facility visits.

One of the seed companies we visited operated from an old, windowless Communist-era warehouse constructed with thick, gray, concrete walls. The company had one bright red batch seed treater, a few antiquated seed cleaning machines and minimal seed handling equipment. Its manager, a pleasant, traditional-looking peasant woman, spoke no English, and I knew no Hungarian.

Nonetheless, she enthusiastically led us through the facility with its labor-intense methods. When we came to a heavy metal tote with bright, treated turnip seed, she held out a handful for our inspection and beamed with a smile that reached from ear to ear. No one has shown more pride in their seed than I felt from her as we gathered in that gloomy, Hungarian warehouse. Given their resources, that company produced fantastically high-quality seed.

During the last 25 years, the seed industry has led production agriculture in the United States through the seismic introduction of transgenic, genetically engineered seed. As news of herbicide-tolerant began to circulate in the mid-1990s, few recognized the shockwaves that were about to redefine the seed business. The independence of family-owned seed companies was challenged when these smaller companies found themselves competing in the marketplace with the same company that supplied the new biotech traits.

The situation became so untenable that numerous companies exited marketing and chose to concentrate on seed production. At the same time, consumers were drawn into the controversy surrounding those new “GMO” traits, and the trait providers forgot that they were still in the people business and applied strong-arm tactics to overpower legitimate concerns. Wounds from that miscalculation may never fully heal.

An important lesson from those turbulent years is to always keep your eye on the people you serve. As editor, I envisioned I was serving two customer groups: seed producers and their product/service providers. My goal was to be the village square, provide a forum where everyone could congregate, share ideas and discuss common concerns. My focus was to bring those groups together. If they would provide news and information, I would deliver an audience to them. We each had what the other wanted without ever mentioning it.

Whatever success I had as an editor came from staying focused on my mission. The ideal outcome was a win-win solution for all of us. My co-conspirator in this arrangement was the magazine’s sales team. I never directly sold anything, but everything I did was, in a sense, always selling. My focus was always on the interests of my audiences and how we all related to each other. I was frequently reminded that if I could provide good content, sales will follow. True to form, they did.

Then as today, we are all in the people business. As I am about to retire and sail into the sunset, I am grateful for my successes, but my best memories are of the times I spent with the seed industry’s men and women. It has been my privilege to participate in an economy where so many of its participants still have their feet firmly planted on the earth.