Diversification Spells Opportunity For Seed Producer

Producing a wider range of crops and selling seed in a global market has been the focus of a young southern Alberta farm couple working to keep pace with the ever-changing needs in agriculture.

Ryan and Annette Mercer, who operate Mercer Seeds at Lethbridge, Alta., have grown beyond the cereals, flax and canola seed business that was the foundation of the well-established Mercer farm they formally took over from Ryan’s parents in 2004.

While cereal grains and flax seed production are still an important part of their business, they have also expanded into pea, chickpea, lentil and mustard seed. They also produce and distribute camelina (a dryland oilseed) and are now looking at the potential of producing and distributing seed for the highly regulated, higher-return Thebaine poppy, which is used in the pharmaceutical industry.

DIVERSIFICATION WITH SEED PRODUCTION

“We have paid attention to crop diversification for several reasons,” says Ryan, who along with Annette were named Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2010. “And the farm was making these changes long before we officially took over, but if you focus on just one or two crops you become so dependent on those commodity prices — trying to decide what prices will be and what to grow. Sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong.

“But with a more diversified portfolio, you are involved in several different markets, with different demands, which hopefully over the longer term improves your profitability.”

With different crops, the timing of movement of seed supplies also varies, with some sold right off the combine, and others sold later in the winter. And from an agronomy standpoint, crop diversification also fits with an integrated pest management system, with different crops in rotation on their 5,000-acre dryland seed farm, weed and disease control are also more manageable.

The Mercers have put a lot of effort into developing production and markets for camelina. Working with the U. S.-based Great Plains Oil and Exploration company, they are the North American distributor of seed for the crop, which is well suited to western Canadian production. It yields an oil which has a good fit in biodiesel production. The Mercers are currently looking at market opportunities for camelina in Europe, South America and Asia.

“We started with southern Alberta roots, but the agriculture industry today certainly works in a world marketplace,” says Mercer.

NEW PRODUCTION PRACTICES

Aside from marketing, the Mercers use or are investigating a number of tools to help improve production efficiency. This is the third year they are using a combine equipped with a stripper header to harvest the crop. The front edge of the header has specially designed “fingers” that strips off the head of the plant putting less plant material through the combine. The combine can travel at twice the speed of a machine equipped with a standard reel-type straight-cut header, which means the Mercers can cover more acres with one combine instead of two.

The harvest operation leaves taller stubble, which is important on their dryland farm for trapping snow and conserving moisture. In spring he seeds the crop with a John Deere disc drill, which has excellent seed placement, but causes very little soil disturbance — again conserving moisture.

The Mercers are also involved in a multi-year study with André Lacoursiere, of 2nd Opinion Consulting in nearby Vulcan, Alta., to determine the economic impact of variable-rate fertilizer application technology. “It may not be so much a question of saving money with reduced fertilizer use, but if we can achieve crop stands with more even maturity, that means we can straight cut more crops rather than swathing,” says Mercer. “But we are just in the midst of that and will learn more as we go.”

Born and raised on the family farm, Ryan completed an agriculture program at Lethbridge College, and also worked as a sales representative for Gustafson. He became a certified crop consultant and began making contacts in the seed industry. In December 1997, Ryan and Annette were married. In 2004, they began farming full time and purchased Mercer Seeds Ltd. from Ryan’s parents. They have three children, Ananda, six, James, three, and Raylene, 18 months.

ADDING SERVICES

As they expanded the seed business, the Mercers tripled their staff, seed cleaning, bagging, and shipping capacity. They added new gravity separation and color recognition technology to begin processing product for the human consumption and pet food markets as well. Additionally, they began custom seeding, spraying and combining.

Ryan was a founding director of the Southeast Alberta Water Co-op that brings freshwater from Ridge Reservoir to dryland farms. Ryan is the current vice-chairman of the Alberta Branch of the Canadian Seed Growers Association. Ryan was a founding director of the Lethbridge Inland Terminal, a 100 per cent farmer owned and operated 40,000- tonne high-throughput grain handling facility. Annette is a volunteer at their children’s school.

The Mercers were selected according to the progress made in their agricultural career, maximum utilization of soil, water and energy conservation practices, crop and livestock production history, financial and management practices and his contribution to the well-being of the community, province and nation.

LeeHartisafieldeditorforGrainewsin Calgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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