The hybrid seed business serves as a gateway to new markets, helping the company establish partnerships in countries around the world.
Known primarily as a grain trader in its early years, Cargill sought to diversify its business in the early 1900s to grow outside the United States. International commodity trading was complicated at that time, and many governments were not receptive to foreign firms entering their grain industries. As a result, Cargill’s leaders knew they needed a product that would help the company break down barriers and expand to other countries. It found that opportunity in hybrid seeds, which are produced by cross-pollinating plants to create new products for customers.
Cargill’s seed interests began in 1907, when it operated the Minneapolis Seed Company, a modest business that sold hybrid seeds, including hybrid corn seed. By the 1940s, through the acquisition of additional seed companies, Cargill was a strong player in the hybrid corn business and developed its own hybrids.
Cargill chose Argentina as the first location to attempt to plant its overseas seed business. A key figure in this decision was Dr. Antonio Marino, an Argentine who studied for a year at the University of Minnesota under H.K. Hays, whose son was the production manager in Cargill’s seed department. After Cargill hired Marino in 1947, he helped the company start a breeding program at Pergamino, located 150 miles northwest of Buenos Aires in the heart of Argentina’s corn belt. The company sold hybrid corn within two years, and by 1960 seed was an important part of Cargill’s business in Argentina.
Cargill entered Brazilian seed markets in 1966. Marino worked with Richard Baldwin, Cargill’s director of research, to develop a hybrid corn plant in Avaré, a ranching city in the state of São Paulo. Their research produced hybrids adapted specifically for Brazil’s climate. Cargill soon opened two additional seed nurseries in São Paulo state. “We are taking technology to a country and utilizing the local germoplasm [the genetic matter of seeds] and increasing farm yields [and] food yields,” stated James Wilson, who was instrumental in establishing Cargill’s presence in Brazil. “How can anybody be critical of increasing farmer’s profit and increasing food yields and lowering the price of food? It was a good place to start.”
The company entered Australia’s seed business in 1974 when the country suffered a sunflower seed shortage. Cargill established hybrid sunflower operations to help sustain the crop. By 1979, the company had opened a seed farm in Wyreema on Australia’s eastern coast, and research commenced on sorghum and corn hybrids in addition to sunflowers. In the 1980s, the country’s seed program served as a platform to launch Cargill’s seed businesses into Asian markets, starting with the Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia and then India. Wilson, who had succeeded with seeds in Brazil, became head of Cargill’s Southeast Asian operations in 1983.
Cargill’s seed business continued to help the company enter developing nations in the 1990s. In Africa, Cargill had success with seeds in Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa and Zambia. And after Eastern Europe opened to foreign investment, the business became the cornerstone of Cargill’s operations in the Ukraine.
Although Cargill ultimately sold its global seed operations in 1998, hybrid seed and related innovations proved to be a successful way for the company to establish new relationships and build trust with governments and customers. Ultimately, selling seeds enabled Cargill to expand into new markets.