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Diversification allows regional family seed company to continue to see growth

MURDOCK -- The farm fields north of Murdock lie fallow and snow-covered, but the winter scene is anything but quiet.

There's a drum beat of hammers at the Falk Seed Farm, where a warehouse and adjoining loading dock are under construction. By spring, the site, which is about the size of a football field, will be stacked with bags of seeds reaching toward a towering rooftop. Most of the seeds are destined for the farmlands of west central Minnesota to produce the coming year's crops.

Many others are food-grade seeds bound for processors in Japan, Korea and Europe, and will become tofu or sprouting beans. Food-grade seeds bound for export now account for anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the company's business in a given year, said Jim Falk, company owner and manager.

Welcome to the world of a family owned seed business in Swift County, where diversity and innovation are as integral a part of the business as is an old fashioned allegiance to providing customers with the highest quality product possible.

"We built this business one year at a time,'' said Falk, who founded the business 26 years ago. He had just returned from college with a degree in geology but a heart set on farming. He joined his father as the fourth generation of the family to work the land north of Murdock.

His father raised certified seed, and Falk said he saw the seed business as a value-added opportunity.

Falk Seed provides seed certified by the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association to farmers in an 80-mile radius of Murdock. The company offers conventional, food-grade and organic soybeans, and wheat, oats and barley. Wheat has become one of the company's most important areas, Falk said.

The company also offers seed mixes for conservation lands and pasture, and has cultivated a number of niche markets, including premium, hulless oats for horses.

Its diversification into niche markets has been rewarded by growth in many of them. While serving the needs of production agriculture is the core of its business, Falk said the markets for organic and local foods are better than many realize. The company has annually upgraded and improved its milling, conditioning and cleaning operations. It can meet and exceed virtually any specification needed by its customer, thanks to equipment ranging from traditional screening and milling to computer controlled, air-blown gravity boards.

The growth of its contract and export businesses led Falk to be a pioneer in robotic technology. In 2001, it became the first seed company in the nation to install a robotic system to stack pallets. The machine stacks pallets with a precision measured in millimeters. It is programmed for 100 different stacking alignments and can palletize 400 bags an hour.

That pace will be necessary as the company fills the warehouse under construction, and prepares for the upcoming planting season.

Spring is a "crazy'' season for the company, Falk said, but diversification has made this a busy operation through much of the year. Seed cleaning is now a 10-months a year operation, he noted.

The seed business currently employs four full-time workers and one part-timer. The workforce expands by four positions during the planting season.

Tom Cherveny

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

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