By Jeremy Christian Nagel
MENDON TOWNSHIP, ST. JOSEPH COUNTY — A near-perfect combination of soils, climate and an abundant water supply makes the southwestern Lower Peninsula one of the nation’s most ideal hubs of seed corn production. Some of the biggest names in that business—the Pioneers and Monsantos of the world—maintain major production facilities here, and the notoriously labor-intensive process of detassling female corn rows by hand is a rite of passage for high school students.
Mendon Seed Growers is a small, family-run hybrid seed corn operation run by Dave Mumby alongside his wife Deena and brother Shawn. A relative David tucked in alongside Goliaths, Mendon Seed has found—made, rather—its own niche in the seed-corn landscape by specializing in almost boutique-scale production, raising hybrid seeds for smaller, family-owned seed marketers.
Begun by Dave and Shawn’s dad in the 1970s only to be immediately stifled by international grain embargos and flaccid overall crop markets, the company struggled to gain a toehold in tough times. Dave came home from college in 1988—also not the best of times for American agriculture—and eventually took over from dad about a decade later.
Gradually—and sometimes not so gradually—he began growing the business, and found encouraging success catering to smaller seed-corn names.
“Small companies are growing again,” he explained to the group of Young Farmers touring his winter-dormant plant on the first day of Michigan Farm Bureau’s 2018 Young Farmer Leaders’ Conference. “The big companies invested in technology” to grow their production and dominate the lion’s share of the market.
But Goliath’s focus on market share left niches open for smaller players, and those niches—like non-GMO seed, for example—are growing.
That’s good news for Mendon Seed, which has the fleet-footed adaptability on its 2,000 acres to produce nearly 100 different custom hybrids for as many different customers in year.
Its present-day success came at a cost, though. The stress of leveraging tremendous debt to grow, not to mention the tremendous year-by-year variability of small-scale seed corn production, is a serious health concern Dave’s had to manage very consciously.
“Keep that in mind,” he cautioned his group of young visitors, most of whom are at a stage in their farming careers when responsibilities can pile up at an overwhelming rate. “You’re gonna get in some stressful situations. You’ve got to be aware of that and educate yourself” about the potential repercussions of that on your health.
Mendon Seed employee Tom Waltke chimed in at that point with his own complementary advice for the young audience: “Think positive—no matter what, you’ve got to think positive.
“Think it’ll get better, and it’ll get better.”