SUNNY REUNION: 50th year attracts friends to valley
FARGO, N.D. -- The other day, I was privileged to attend a family reunion of sorts. Jay Schuler of Breckenridge, Minn., asked if I'd like to attend a "50th sunflower reunion," involving some of the employees, customers and interested parties who ...
FARGO, N.D. -- The other day, I was privileged to attend a family reunion of sorts.
Jay Schuler of Breckenridge, Minn., asked if I'd like to attend a "50th sunflower reunion," involving some of the employees, customers and interested parties who somehow have been connected to the family's various businesses in a half century.
The event was held on a windy evening in a park shelter in Breckenridge. They came from near and far.
One attendee, Schuler's father, Robert Schuler, started a confection sunflower business in 1958 called Sigco Sun Products Bob and his brother, George, ran the business as Sigco, a sort of acronym for Schuler Inc. Grain Co.
In the late 1970s, Jay Schuler, after college, partnered with Gerhardt "Gary" Fick, a North Dakota State University professor and a sunflower geneticist, to start a separate hybrid seed business they called Sigco Research. Fick had helped develop hybridization in sunflowers, which led to increased yields. In 1982, they sold the business to Lubrizol, and the company now is called Micogen.
Schuler and various partners have spawned numerous related businesses and brands -- Sonne Labs, the Dakota Gourmet brand name and Sigco Food Products. The latest iterations of the family entrepreneurship include Seeds 2000 and Giant Snacks, and the elevator business is called Minn-Kota Ag Products, which involves elevator, fertilizer and multi-loading work.
Others at the party, still in the business, included Pablo Diaz Colodrero, commercial director for Argensun of Buenos Aires, Argentina, made a stop in Breckenridge as part of a national trip. Agrensun started 19 years ago processing confection sunflower and early on as a friendly competitor with Schuler and Sigco.
"We helped each other when we had problems," Colodrero says. "We shared a lot of information. We learned we had more interest in common than opposite interests."
The company started small, with fewer than 5,000 acres of confection sunflower the first year.
"We started only hulling and selling the kernels, not in-shell," Colodrero says. "Today, Argensun is selling many products from the confection sunflower in more than 60 countries. Its main markets are Germany for the kernels and Spain for in-shell."
The big difference between the Argentine and U.S. market is that there is no big domestic market in Argentina. There is no open market in Argentina, with everything grown under contract, he says. Oilseed varieties are 30 days longer in their growing season than are seeds in the U.S. "It is not rare to find sunflowers in Argentina with 65 percent to 67 percent oil content," he says. The country produces more than 4 million metric tons, and almost all are for oil. There is no mid-oleic, just conventionals and high-oleic.
Also attending was Tom Droog -- owner of Spitz International Inc. of Bow Island, Alberta, who started the company as Alberta Sunflower Seeds in 1982, growing large sunflower seeds that went to Spain, Taiwan and England. He started with Spitz in 1990 and initially bought planting seed from Seeds 2000. He was a farmer who grew his first sunflower seeds in 1979, contracted for 10 cents a pound. He switched to confections for higher-paying birdseed market.
In the confection market, he introduced flavored sunflower and low salt. He quickly made a success of selling seeds with less salt, and extra incentives for sales staff.
"We're No. 1 in Canada," he says. "Five years ago, we were No. 64 in the United States, and last year we became No. 3. We're doing something right. We don't know quite what."
Initially, the farm supported the company, but now the farm is rented out.
The two do some research in China on the planting seed.
"We believe in the same philosophy: hard work, some honesty, some integrity. That goes a long ways," Droog says.
And, according to Jay and Jody Schuler, it's fun to look back at fifty years of friends.