More than a century ago the DeKalb County Agricultural Association made its mark in our county, the legendary company which developed DEKALB hybrid seed corn.
The rich history of the DEKALB brand continues today with the Bayer Company. Bayer maintains the local legacy with its research, production and seed technology facilities based in Waterman.
In a closer look at the company history, from traditions to transitions, we find the seed business footprint perseveres.
The DeKalb Ag Tradition
DeKalb Ag’s early beginnings are tied to the DeKalb County Soil Improvement Association. A forward-thinking group of farmers, bankers and businessmen formed the Association in 1912 to improve soils and the quality of seeds for farmers.
A few years later, in 1917, the Soil Improvement Association established the DeKalb County Agricultural Association (DeKalb Ag), a business entity for developing better seeds. The Soil Improvement Association, which became the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, concentrated on educating farmers in the early days of the organization while DeKalb Ag turned attention to the development of hybrid corn.
At the height of the company’s success, DeKalb Ag was a large employer in the county with people based in their main office and seed technology lab on Bethany Road, DeKalb, at other offices in DeKalb and Sycamore, and at the research and production facilities in Waterman.
DeKalb Ag was a leader in the seed industry making great strides in corn hybrid research worldwide. Over time the company’s name changed, including during periods of mergers and acquisitions – DeKalb Agricultural Association, DeKalb AgResearch, DeKalb-Pfizer Genetics, DeKalb Plant Genetics, DeKalb Genetics, Monsanto – and last year was acquired by Bayer.
The Transition to Bayer
The DEKALB brand, now owned by Bayer, is still known for global innovation, exclusive genetics, superior performance and integrated solutions to help farmers maximize yield potential, according to Camille Scott, Bayer Crop Science Research and Development (R & D) Communications.
“Just as in the early days of DeKalb Ag, the DEKALB brand is still dedicated to making farming better and finding a way to improve yield results,” she explained.
Bayer is a life science company with core areas of health care and agriculture. Their Crop Science division headquarters are based in Monheim, Germany and St. Louis, Missouri. The company has a global footprint that spans nearly every country with an expansive line of crop protectants and seeds.
The company has more than 350 R & D sites and over 175 breeding stations across the globe with approximately 7,300 R & D employees in their labs, offices and in the field. Their research is aimed at improving productivity worldwide.
The Bayer Waterman facilities serve a key role in the development, quality and supply of Bayer seed products. They employ 112 people full time and another 300 contract workers seasonally to work at the Research Site, Production Site and Seed Technology Center in Waterman.
Bayer Production Site
Troy Dukes says the Waterman sites are an integral part of the Bayer Company. He is the Site Lead at the Production Site located in the heart of the village of Waterman. There, they process exclusively seed corn.
“The Waterman Production Site is part of the legacy of the DEKALB brand,” said Troy, having worked for Monsanto for 18 years and now Bayer. “This legacy has been honored with each change in company ownership, continuing now with Bayer. We believe it’s important to keep the brand represented in DeKalb County.”
The Production Site was one of the first to be built as part of the DeKalb County Agricultural Association, with construction starting in 1935 and completed in 1936. The original plant had a capacity of 100,000 bags of seed per year, utilizing 10-12 employees.
Today, the plant produces over one million bags of seed a year with 62 full-time employees. From the plant they ship 950,000 units of seed corn to dealers annually.
The 25-acre site has been through several renovations and technology upgrades over the years which has enabled it to operate as a state-of-the-art seed processing facility. The facility processes for seed corn are husking, sorting, shelling, drying, conditioning, seed treatments, packaging, storing and shipping.
The Waterman Production Site is one of nine seed corn processing facilities across the Midwest which supply the DEKALB brand seed, according to Troy. Last year they processed 35 different DEKALB and Channel seed corn hybrids. The seed is grown on irrigated farmland in Rock Falls, harvested from late August to early October, and trucked to Waterman.
After it has been processed and packaged, the seed corn is shipped to Midwestern states from November through the spring planting season. About 12,000 bags are now being shipped out daily.
“Quality control is important at the Production Site,” said Troy. “We go through a rigorous process, sampling every stage from field to storage. We are constantly monitoring moisture, germination, impurities, the cleaning process, and packaging.”
The variety of jobs there include: seed cleaning and packaging operators, field technicians, forklift operators, harvest operations, maintenance, automation, and process engineers.
As far as the transition from Monsanto to Bayer, Troy responds, “Not much has changed. Operationally, it’s been a rather seamless transition.”
Bayer Research Site
Located four miles northwest of Waterman, on Minnegan Road, the Research Site was the first corn breeding station for DeKalb Ag in 1932. The site started with 40 acres and stretches across 320 acres today.
Some of the first corn inbreds and first hybrids that built the DEKALB seed brand were developed at this Research Site. A plaque on the wall of the main office shows 33 different commercial hybrids got their start there.
John Hardin is the Site Lead at the research facility. He has been with the Asgrow/Monsanto/Bayer Company for 24 years. “This year is a transitional year as we integrate into Bayer,” said John.
The Waterman Research Site is one of 32 U.S. and Canada breeding research hubs for Bayer Crop Science. Currently, they are gearing up to plant their spring field plots.
The Minnegan site employs 27 full time employees and 50 part time seasonal workers. Jobs include: agronomic testing, entomologists, pathologists, and technicians. They focus on crop research accomplished from the main office, greenhouse, insectory and field plots.
Corn hand pollination no longer occurs at this site and detasseling, for the most part, is accomplished by modern machines today. Another change at the research center is the addition of soybean testing.
With a history of company changes, the facilities in Waterman remain. “Waterman is an important site to our overall growth of the company,” said John. “We have a great rapport with the community. Between the three sites we work together collaboratively.”
Today, the research center continues to develop new seed technology solutions for farmers. They handle thousands of corn lines from over 15 different countries. Research functions include: corn breeding, North America Field Testing Operations for corn and soybean testing, plant health: pathology, entomology: insectary, germplasm IP stewardship, breeding support, pipeline enablement and production research.
Judd Maxwell, corn breeder at the Research Site, says they develop base genetics for the platform with 105- and 110-day corn and build the base. Then the traits are added at another trait integration site (like Hawaii).
“We select well adapted genetics and combine lines. It’s one of the pieces in the breeding puzzle. We’re one of the parent varieties stations.”
Some of the new research being done today at the site is testing to prevent tar spot fungus and developing traits for short stature corn.
Larry Mix, a 33-year company veteran and Germplasm Intellectual Property Stewardship Lead with Bayer Global Breeding, is part of a team that protects the breeding innovations of the company with patents, plant variety protection certificates and other measures.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. Many great opportunities have come from the transitions from DeKalb to Monsanto to Bayer with incredible technology,” said Larry. “Looking back (to the days of DeKalb Ag), I have great appreciation for the Roberts’ family foresight and what they created for their employees.”
Bayer Seed Technology Center
At the Seed Technology Center located next to the Production Site in Waterman, employees run tests for 23 different crops. They test row crop seeds such as corn, soybeans, cotton and sorghum and assorted vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, watermelon, onions and lettuce.
They process over 400,000 quality tests each year to ensure seed products meet growers’ expectations.
Renee Nowak is the Seed Physiology Testing Lab Lead at the Seed Technology Center. She has been with the Monsanto/Bayer Company for 13 years, with the last five years at the Waterman location.
“I am excited to see what opportunities will arise from the acquisition, both for the employees as well as our customers,” said Renee. “For the employees, we have the opportunity to be part of a much larger organization and learn from some of the best in the industry. For the customers, the synergy that the acquisition brings is the combination of the best seeds and traits portfolio and the best chemistry portfolio.”
Their two-story Seed Center is comprised of these divisions: purity, planting, evaluations, media prep, sample management and data entry.
At the Center, they follow testing regulations as part of the Federal Seed Act and Truth in Labeling provisions. They grow seeds, monitor germination, and do stress tests for vigor such as varying temperatures, growing days, and running other physiological tests. Then, they compare their data to seed performance in the field.
“A seed could be tested as many as four times,” said Melissa Phillips, registered seed technologist. “Part of our testing assures that the seed is good. If it doesn’t get sold we test it again to make sure it’s high enough quality to keep and process it again.”
The Bayer lab is accredited through the USDA and recognized internationally as a foreign lab for testing global seeds.
The nearby Production Site submits corn samples to the Seed Center for testing.
About 23 people are employed full time at the Seed Center in Waterman. During the busy fall harvest season they hire up to 100 contract workers for testing seeds. Jobs include: planting and evaluations, lab leads, operations supervisor, technical leads, registered seed technologists, lab technicians and engineers.
Recently, the Seed Center added cutting-edge technology with a series of robots, which plant seeds in trays, performing automation tasks to increase efficiencies on site.
From all indications, the local transition from Monsanto to Bayer has been seamless and the DEKALB brand legacy lives on in DeKalb County.
Tradition to Transition – Bayer Employees Rooted in Company
Bayer Gives Back
Bayer employees are very involved within the DeKalb County community. Bayer’s Waterman Community Outreach Committee works with local organizations to coordinate volunteer efforts.
Farm Bureau is fortunate to have received generous Bayer volunteers for Farm Safety Camp, Science Olympiad, Ag in the Classroom, History Expo, Career Acquaintance Day, Ag Literacy Committee, Summer Ag Institute, and more!
Bayer volunteers also help with Meals on Wheels, Adopt-A-Highway, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Feed My Starving Children, and Habitat for Humanity.
Over the last three years Bayer/Monsanto has donated over $220,000 to local non-profit organizations through the Monsanto Fund.
The DeKalb County community is fortunate to have such dedicated volunteers.