Seed World

The IPSA Perspective

CEO Todd Martin reflects on the past and present for the Independent Professional Seed Association as well as the road ahead.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated from the original piece.

It may be hard to believe, but the Independent Professional Seed Association (IPSA) is about to begin its 32nd year. A little before it formed, a small group of independent seed companies recognized the need for an organization to represent the unique needs of companies such as theirs. They sent out a mailing to gauge interest among their peers and in 1989, 80 charter members were present at the first IPSA meeting.

IPSA’s membership now has over 100 seed company members across 25 U.S. states, with a few also located in Canada, Mexico and South America. They produce corn, soybeans, small grain and forage seeds. The association has another 120 associate and affiliate members representing all other facets of the seed industry. IPSA itself is a member of the American Seed Trade Association and various state and regional seed associations, which allows for the exchange of information, collaboration and the development to strong relationships with seed companies throughout the world.

The time of IPSA’s formation was very timely. It was only a few years later, in the mid-1990s, when the advent of Round Up Ready and Bt corn traits put unprecedented strain on independents.

“Everything changed significantly at that point,” explains IPSA CEO Todd Martin. “Growers demanded traited crops starting with Roundup Ready soybeans and continuing with Bt corn. Independent seed companies with breeding programs were forced to adapt and license traited genetics, which transformed the way they did business.”

Since the launch of seed with those traits in 1995, the situation has not become easier for IPSA members. “We are very focused on one objective,” says Martin. “That’s to help independent seed companies survive and thrive in this very difficult time in which they exist. We fight for that cause every day, making sure our collective voice is heard in terms of protecting the livelihood of our members and finding more opportunities for them.”

Right now there are about 120 independent corn and soybean companies — which is a substantially lower number compared to the roughly 400 that existed decades ago. Still, these companies now represent 20% of corn and soybean seed sales in the U.S., and their customer base remains loyal. Farmers want to buy from independent companies for the same reasons, says Martin, that they go to their independently-owned garage or drug store or restaurant. They know the owners of their seed company personally; they see them at church and at community events. They trust them and return to them to buy seed every year because they know they’ll be looked after. They want to deal with a company that values them and treats them with respect. For independent seed companies, says Martin, customer relationships are everything and every customer is very important.

Two Interconnected Problems

Right now, independent seed companies face two main and very difficult issues. Their profits are continually being squeezed, and their access to genetics is limited to a handful of providers.

Their position (as with any group of independent businesses) is precarious because they are competing, Martin explains, with powerful multinational seed companies with large resources at their disposal. These same companies are also suppliers of traits and genetics to independent seed companies. This is certainly not the first situation in agriculture that could be referred to as ‘coopetition’. One of IPSA’s main missions to therefore ensure that the competition field is level.

Government regulations, for example, can put independents at many types of disadvantage, and so IPSA works very hard to ensure that any proposed regulatory changes are fully and very carefully examined with due consideration given to everyone in the industry. 

On the genetics front, while independent corn breeding slowed in years past, Martin explains that a large supply of genetics are coming off patent. This could be an influx in material in seed expansion and breeding efforts, giving new companies opportunities to develop new genetics from old genetics. Additionally, many current corn traits are coming off patent, which could open up new opportunities in the future.

“But we still have to deal with today,” Martin stresses. “We have to make sure independent seed companies survive to the time when these genetics become available. Genetics research is absolutely critical.” 

Research and More

Research has always been a priority for IPSA, and as with any organization, its research program has evolved over time. In the past, many members have provided locations and other resources to support research trials and this continues today. 

Besides genetics, other IPSA-funded research projects have focussed on seed treatment efficacy, hybrid and inbred interaction with herbicides, screening for disease and more. Seed treatment and other seed enhancements are still a central area of research. To date, IPSA has funded over $5,000,000 in private and public research projects.

IPSA also works with its members to enhance business acumen. Each year, IPSA sponsors seminars on topics such as employee/customer relationships, marketing, leadership, communications, employee motivation and succession planning. IPSA members have enthusiastically supported these seminars, says Martin, at field days throughout the year and also during the Annual Conference. 

Members of IPSA also benefit from “group buying” programs for widely-used products, and specific services that meet the needs of independent seed businesses in specific states or regions.

“IPSA remains committed to its independent seed company members as well as those companies we consider to be our future members,” says Martin. “We will continue to do everything we can to get our members access to genetics, to established traits and to protect their margins so that they can survive and thrive. The next few years should represent a turning point and usher in a new era of stability and success for our members. We will work hard to make sure that happens.”