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Frontier Testing in Olivia knows how to find it

Chris Mack and partner Ed Baumgartner, not pictured, are witnessing an increased demand for the seed testing services offered by their independent company, Frontier Crop Testing in Olivia. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

OLIVIA -- Olivia can lay claim to being host to one of the world's largest concentrations of seed company research and production facilities, with some of the biggest names in the industry represented here.

And for nearly three years now, it has been home to exactly one company dedicated to the real germ of the matter.

Frontier Crop Testing provides field testing and evaluation services that help companies identify the corn hybrids and traits that can provide them with the best possible seeds for the markets they serve.

"We could see a real need for this type of service,'' said Chris Mack, who along with partner Ed Baumgartner opened shop in Olivia in Mack's home in 2007.

Today the company is located in the International Building located just one block off downtown, where a warehouse, laboratory and offices are filling up fast. The start-up company has grown from 10 test sites for clients in their first year to 48 today, with clients and assignments ranging from central South Dakota to central Wisconsin.

"I wouldn't say we bit off more than we could chew, but we have a lot of chewing to do,'' said Mack, laughing.

That's exactly what Mack and Baumgartner hoped to see happen when they planted the seeds of their own business. Both are Olivia natives, and have extensive backgrounds in the seed industry. Mack started with Keltgen Seeds in the 1980's. Baumgartner was (and is) operating his own nursery for seed companies in Puerto Rico when they decided to start their own business.

The two had been enjoying successful careers with seed companies, but Mack said they felt that the corporate culture stifled the opportunities to pursue new ideas and approaches. And, both had enough experience and contacts in the seed industry to know the demand for the testing services they now provide.

Their solution was to start up their own company to provide them with the independence they sought to build that better mouse trap and serve that market.

Starting up a new business is not for the feint of heart, and that's especially true in the seed testing industry. The capital demands are big, as the work requires specialized planters, combines and other equipment.

Yet the demands for their service are proving their investment worthwhile.

Some of their work comes from larger seed companies which have their own research and testing divisions, but sometimes need extra help.

The biggest share of their work comes from smaller, regional retail seed companies that do not have the same, in-house resources for testing and research work, said Mack. These companies are looking to identify the traits and hybrids that will give them the edge in their own, regional markets.

These companies cannot afford to rely on off-the-shelf hybrids or traits that work well across the entire Corn Belt and sell in Peoria, Ill. They need traits that stand above the best in places like Ortonville, where the latitude, soils and growing conditions are quite different.

Or, as is frequently becoming the case for Frontier Testing, they need traits that work best for the dairy farms of the Dakotas and Minnesota.

An increasing share of their seed plots and business is devoted to silage. The expansion of the dairy industry along the Interstate-29 corridor in South Dakota has meant a greater need for corn silage raised in the Dakota's and western Minnesota. There is also lots of competition to provide the dairy industry with silage offering the best nutritional value and production attributes possible.

Mack said the company also sees continued and steady demand for testing involving corn raised for both canning and commodity sales.

It is also starting to see interest taking off in an entirely new direction: Raising corn as biomass from the renewable energy industry.

Cutting edge? Lots of their work is indeed, and something of the same can be said for their business practices as well. Mack said they are always looking for opportunities to expand and diversify their operations. Along with the testing, they also provide mechanical maintenance services for the planters and harvesters that so many seed companies use in their own testing and research work.

And, Frontier Testing is exploring opportunities to use the Internet to the advantage of their clients. The partners are looking at how they can provide real-time information from the field to the corporate office of their clients at the click of the mouse.

The bottom line for Olivia and Renville County is a start up company on-the-grow. The two partners employ a staff that includes Mack's wife Heidi as bookkeeper; Ed Baumgartner's brother Joe Baumgartner as operations manager; and his wife Anita as coordinator for the lab, warehouse and website operations.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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