Albert Lea Seed's biggest year comes on 100-year anniversary
The company, which began contracting and producing certified organic seed in 1998, acquired Blue River Organic Seed this summer, making it the largest organic field seed supplier in the country.
ALBERT LEA, Minn. — Driven by family, customer service and helping conventional and organic farmers alike, Albert Lea Seed is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.
Albert Lea Seed provides conventional non-GMO and organic seed products to farmers across the country, while also carrying cover crops, small grains, and forage. Founded in 1923 by Lou Ehrhardt, the business, which is now one of the largest suppliers of organic field seed in the U.S., has been owned and operated by the Ehrhardt family for three generations.
Mac Ehrhardt — current co-owner of Albert Lea Seed, along with Margaret Ehrhardt and Tom Ehrhardt — said the company has been too busy as of late to do much celebrating.
This summer, Albert Lea Seed acquired Blue River Organic Seed , the nation's longest-established organic seed corn brand, from the Farmers Business Network.
"We've never bought another company before," Mac Ehrhardt said from his office in Albert Lea. "The acquisition and integration of Blue River has just taken up a lot of bandwidth here, and so while we do have some events planned for our staff and our customers, it hasn't happened so far."
The product line for the seed house headquartered in Albert Lea included Viking Corn & Soybeans , organic seeds, small grains, cover crops, wildflowers, native grasses and more before the acquisition. Ames, Iowa-based Blue River's product line includes organic corn, corn silage, soybean, alfalfa, forages and sorghum.
The acquisition, Ehrhardt said, seemed like it wouldn't happen at all until all of a sudden it did.
"We negotiated and then decided it wasn't going to work and gave up," he said. "I've never been through (an acquisition) before, but they say that happens quite often."
He said that negotiations started in October 2021, then fell off for three months before picking up again.
"We pushed really hard, from February through July, to get it over the line," Ehrhardt said. "Really, in terms of business acquisitions, it was a small company buying another smaller company."
The move elevates Albert Lea Seed on a number of levels, including making the family-owned company the largest organic field seed supplier, producer and commercialization expert in the U.S.
It also expands the organization's relationships in the organic farming market and adds Blue River's 40,000-square-foot, climate-controlled seed warehouse and office for support and distribution of the combined Viking/Blue River Organic Seed brand.
Ben Hinueber, sales and plant operations manager at Albert Lea Seed, said the acquisition changed the size of the operation but not the overall goal.
"I always cringe when people say we're the biggest (organic seed) company, like it's a cloak of honor," he said. "I want to be the best company and recognized for being exceptional in the way that we serve customers, through our product offerings and our knowledge. I think that's where the real opportunity lies."
Mac Ehrhardt said the business of Albert Lea Seed boils down to supplying seed and information that farmers need to commercial farm.
"We either contract grow with farmers or buy on the open market," he said of the business model.
Over half of the seed that Albert Lea Seed sells comes to them clean, packaged and ready to go, but they also clean a lot of seed in two plants where they package it as well.
The seed house hires seasonal workers for the shipping season. Ehrhardt said they currently have 72 workers but are usually around 60.
Albert Lea Seed serves a wide range of about 9,000 customers, he said.
"Some of those are people who call for 15 pounds of hairy vetch for their garden, and then some of them are buying a quarter of a million dollars of seed for their farming operations," Ehrhardt said.
The company sells to farmers in California and Washington, as well as New York, Maine and South Carolina, but the majority of its distribution is in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
Ehrhardt said the seed house is committed to organic agriculture, but doesn't think it's the only solution. Corn and soybeans have always been crucial to the business and their customers, he said.
Albert Lea Seed was founded in 1923 by Lou Ehrhardt, who was recruited by his brother-in-law, a farmer, into the business. He soon purchased the retail side of the business, which began as a branch location of the Wedge Nursery in Albert Lea, then moved to a spot downtown in a corner of Gulbrandson Hardware.
In the early years, he sold farm seed along with flowers, fruit, goldfish, Christmas trees and whatever else customers needed. He mailed out a seed price list each spring. According to the company's website, he even resold potatoes that had been hit by an early frost after slicing off the bad parts.
When hybrid corn was first released, Lou knew there'd be a high demand for it and built a drying and grading plant. He contracted for corn hybrids to be produced in Waseca, and Albert Lea Seed employees, including his son, George, would travel there to detassel corn.
Mac Ehrhardt said he remembers his grandfather to be a natty dresser and always friendly and outgoing.
"Lou always wore a shirt and tie to work, even when he was doing warehouse work," he said. "He'd just roll up his sleeves and tuck his tie into his shirt, and sew up seed bags or whatever he was working on."
One of Lou Ehrhardt's favorite expressions — one that Mac Ehrhardt often repeats to employees — is that a customer is not an interruption.
"No matter what you're doing, you need to make time to talk to a customer who calls or a customer who shows up in the door, because they're the folks that you are there for," he said. "We try to maintain that customer service, and I don't know that we achieve it every day, but it is a goal."
George Ehrhardt came into the business with his father after he served in the U.S. Navy during World War ll, and he spent years learning the ropes until taking an active management role in 1950. He's responsible for starting the Viking Corn & Soybeans brand which is still going today.
George and Lou Ehrhardt bought an old fertilizer plant in the mid-1970s and used sandblasters and aluminum paint to restore the building, which is the current location of Albert Lea Seed.
George's son, Tom, joined the company in 1981, and his other son, Mac, started in 1990, and they both worked like their father did, through jobs in the company to gain the experience necessary to run it one day.
Riding the organic wave
Mac Ehrhardt said by the time the next generation took control in 2000, Albert Lea Seed was still a small company with 20-25 employees.
"Our primary footprint had been Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and a little bit into South Dakota," he said of the early 2000s. "And it was the same mix of seeds, but we were just getting our feet wet in selling organic seed."
Similar to Lou's intuition on hybrid corn, Mac, Tom and Margaret felt there to be a growing market in organic seed years before organic seed was regulated by the federal government. Predating the National Organic Program becoming operational in 2002, Albert Lea Seed worked with a local farmer in 1997 to grow certified organic oats, then launched them the following year.
Organic sales have since been the staple of Albert Lea Seed, and Mac Ehrhardt said that over 65% of its business this year will be certified organic seeds.
"We've been growing with that niche, and we feel like it's kind of a natural fit for us," he said.
There were times when Albert Lea Seed had to reexamine where it fit in the industry, he said.
"95% of the corn that gets planted in the United States is Roundup Ready, or LibertyLink, SmartStax or AcreMax," he said. "Those folks are very well served by a large and thriving seed industry that's focused on those people."
Still, from 1997 to 2017, Albert Lea Seed was licensed to sell traits.
"We got out of that business because we felt like it's not our core, and other people are doing a better job at it," Ehrhardt said. "So let's focus on what we think we're good at and serve the niche where we feel like we can make a difference."
The next chapter
In 2021, the Albert Lea Seed established a stock-ownership structure to transition the business ownership to current employees Matt Helgeson, Ben Hinueber and Elia Romano, along with a former employee, Bob Atwell. The Ehrhardts will remain majority shareholders for several years, but majority stock ownership will be turned over to the next ownership crew thereafter.
There's still a family connection to carry the business into the future, as Mac and Tom are second cousins once removed to Ben Hinueber.
"There's always been a lot of pride in the fact that the seed house was started by my great-grandparents, and also a lot of responsibility that comes along with that," Hinueber said.
As a kid, he said visiting and working odd jobs at Albert Lee Seed was his introduction to agriculture. After getting a degree in biology at Montana State University, Hinueber said he was undecided on a career path and reached out to Mac and Margaret to see if they needed help at the seed house.
"That's how I got my official start working for Albert Lea Seed, I was actually working as a seasonal employee in the warehouse," he said of 2010.
For the next couple years, he would continue working as a seasonal employee. But every year, he stayed a little bit longer.
"I'd work in one area of the business, whether it was the warehouse or mixing department, or the mill, and learned a little bit more every year, and just kind of stuck around and got more involved," he said.
Today, Hinueber is the operations manager and runs a lot of the day-to-day business functions that he got firsthand experience in.
"It was always in the back of the mind," he said of taking over part ownership of Albert Lea Seed one day. "But at the same time, it's a big challenge to manage and operate this business, and there's a lot of moving parts — we're doing sales, we're operating a warehouse facility, we're doing seed cleaning and seed production, and working with farmers on all those aspects of the business."
He said their approach to sales will always be focused on farmers' success and the same customer-service values instilled by the owners before.
"We obviously sell products, we're a commercial organization, but a big part of what we do here is providing information and product selection that helps the farmer achieve their goals and be more profitable," Hinueber said.
The product that Albert Lea Seed puts out is a business input to a farmer, he said, and carries significant economic implications.
"It takes a lot of building knowledge and time to be competent and have enough understanding, enough agronomic knowledge to know the variety offerings well enough to be able to have the confidence that we're making the correct recommendation for each customer," he said, which is where staff collaboration comes in. "We have various staff members that focus on specific cropping systems and species, so if we feel like we're beyond the scope of our knowledge, we can kick it out to someone that has more expertise in that particular practice or craft."