ALGONA - Corn harvest is a few weeks away for most farmers in North Iowa, but for Pioneer's seed facility at Algona, harvest is well underway.
This work will give 100 Algona-area residents a steady paycheck, will continue through the winter and will result in more than 1 million seed bags shipped out, with some seed going to an ethanol plant, others to a cement plant and a local cattle producer buying the husks and cobs.
In spite of the seasonal hubbub of activity, Pioneer opened up its Algona facility for tours in observance of its 75 years at Algona on Sept. 16.
-Messenger photo by Clayton Rye
Ears of corn destined for seed are brought into Pioneer’s Algona plant primarily from fields between Algona and Mason City. Each variety has to be dumped in a specific pit to keep the seeds segregated.
At a noon meal attended by plant employees and the public, DuPont representative Paul Schickler said that when the Algona plant was opened in 1938, average corn yield was 30 bushels per acre, and today the average for corn is 160 bushels per acre.
The increase in yields is "one of the greatest technological innovations in the U.S," said Schickler.
Schickler said that going from today's world population of 7 billion to feeding 9 billion by 2050 will be agriculture's challenge for today and the future - and a reason to be optimistic for the future of agriculture.
"Agriculture is an optimistic science," said Schickler.
Schickler recounted the series of events that led to Pioneer's place in the seed industry starting with the founding of Pioneer by Henry Wallace after taking walks with George Washington Carver when Carver was a professor at Iowa State University.
Carver stimulated Wallace's interest in agriculture and that led Wallace to hire Norman Borlaug to improve wheat genetics, increasing wheat's yield potential to feed many more people worldwide.
"This was the beginning of the green revolution," said Schickler.
Algona Mayor Lynn Kueck said 1926 was the beginning of hybrid seed and by 1938, when the Algona facility opened, 90 percent of corn planted was hybrid seed.
Kueck said when the Pioneer plant was opened in Algona, it provided jobs for area residents in the years following the Great Depression when people were in need of work.
"Pioneer was the lifeblood of Algona after the Depression," said Kueck, and it remains one of Algona's key industries after 75 years.
DuPont employs about 100 Algona-area workers in research, production and sales. About 75 of these employees work at the seed facility.
During the summer, 700 local residents work as detasselers.
Seed corn is also transported by semi-trailer trucks from Washington, Oregon and Nebraska to Algona. It is part of DuPont's risk management to maintain a supply of seed when there are problems in the growing season for a particular area that reduces the supply.
Because of the importance of the seed needing to be processed once it has been harvested, it is brought to Algona by teams of drivers. The teams work nonstop.
The harvest season for the Algona plant begins in early September and work continues through the winter right up to planting time.
At its busiest time, the plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
More than a million bags of seed corn are shipped from Algona each year, said Amanda Rinehart, communications manager for Pioneer.
It is shipped to seed dealers from northern Iowa to the Canadian border.
And it's not just seed corn leaving the Algona facility.
Untreated seed that is rejected for sale to farmers is sent to the ethanol plant at Lakota; treated seed that is rejected is shipped to the cement plant in Mason City where it is burned. Husks and cobs are sold to a local cattle feeder.
Eric Von Muenster was Algona plant manager from 2002-2011. He is now production manager for six Pioneer facilities in northern Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Von Muenster said the strength of the Algona plant is its "really dedicated, hard-working employees here to get the best products on farms."