By Dan Charles – npr/the salt, 6 April 2016

Seed labels from the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. – Courtesy of Rob-See-Co


Most food, if we trace it back far enough, began as a seed. And the business of supplying those seeds to farmers has been transformed over the past half-century. Small-town companies have given way to global giants.

A new round of industry consolidation is now underway. Multibillion-dollar mergers are in progress, or under discussion, that could put more than half of global seed sales in the hands of three companies.

If there’s anyone who can trace the course of this transformation, and explain what drove it, it’s Ed Robinson.

For most of his life, Robinson ran the family business: the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. of Waterloo, Neb. He’s 92 years old now, feisty and full of opinions, especially about the seed business.

“Here are two kernels of corn,” he says, holding them up for me to inspect. “What the seed industry does is sell what’s inside this kernel. And the only way that the farmer knows what’s in there, is if he trusts the person who sold it!”

Seeds, with their hidden potential, are the lifeblood of agriculture, but the companies that sold them to farmers didn’t always attract much attention.
There used to be hundreds of family-run companies just like J.C. Robinson scattered across the Midwest.

“They were a band of wonderful people,” Robinson says.

Much of the work was mundane. They grew vegetables or grain, then collected the seeds carefully, dried them, sorted them and sold them to farmers.

There was, of course, competition among them. It was a race to create ever-more-productive seeds using plant breeding, cross-pollinating selected plants and selecting the best offspring.

The big companies did their breeding in-house. But smaller companies had other sources of top varieties, such as the breeding programs of universities. Those seeds were free for anyone to use.