Seed company sticks to its roots
The yields have changed. The technology has changed. The ownership has changed.
But one Pekin company is sticking with what it started doing 100 years ago: Making seed for farmers.
O.J. and Arthur Sommer founded their company in 1909 with their 10 best ears of corn. That humble collaboration resulted in the formation of Sommer Brothers Seed Co., a family business that became one of the top seed-producing centers in the country.
The business has produced seed at the same site for 100 years, right off Illinois Route 9, now located just past all the retail and commercial development that’s sprung up along the road in Pekin over the past century.
Just down the street is the graveyard where former U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen is buried. Dirksen, a U.S. congressman in the 1930s and 1940s, often spoke at the seed company’s field day events, drawing as many as 1,000 people, said O.J.’s son, Ted Sommer, 89, who lives nearby and still drops by the office once a week.
The original office for the family firm was set back about a quarter-mile off the road — by design. “In case it didn’t make it,” Sommer said.
Now 100 years later, new buildings blend with some of the old at the site that employs 27 people, said plant manager Tim Hufnagel. The old Red Crown gas pumps are gone, but the location and function remain the same since the Sommer brothers first launched their business.
Although acquired by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta in 2004, the Sommer family still is deeply involved in the operation: Mark Sommer, 33, representing a fourth generation of Sommers, is plant operations manager. The older Sommers have retired from the company, but they remain close to the operation.
The Pekin seed business has evolved over the years. When O.J. and Arthur started the business, good yields were considered to range from 80 to 100 bushels an acre, said Jim Sommer, 62, grandson of the founder.
In those early days, you could buy “100 ears to the crate of Reids yellow dent corn” that you then shucked for seed, he said.
In the 1930s, after corn hybrids were developed, Sommer Brothers became a grower for Funks Hybrids in Bloomington. Yields almost doubled with the hybrids, said Jim Sommer.
The Sommer Brothers Seed Co. offered more than just corn and soybean seed, said Ted Sommer.
“We sold all kinds of seed before Syngenta took over: Wheat, alfalfa, red clover and many others,” he said.
The firm’s colorful Tiger Brand was once a common sight on seed bags sold throughout the country.
“Many truck and carload shipments of (Sommer Brothers) seed are being made to all parts of central and eastern United States,” noted the Pekin Association of Commerce in 1949.
The company remains unique today because it processes both corn and soybean seed at the same location, said Hufnagel, adding that most Syngenta plants specialize in just one crop.
“We contract with many different growers,” he said, estimating that the plant receives corn grown on about 6,000 acres from around the state while the soybean operation involves producers representing 29,000 acres.
“Three years ago, Syngenta installed a state-of-the-art processing plant that now turns out 1.5 million (50-pound) bags of soybean seed a year,” said Hufnagel, adding that the firm’s employees deserve credit for the company’s success.
“We’ve got a lot of employees here who have been with us for 20 years or more,” he said.
Hufnagel also cited the company’s safety record.
“Now we’ve gone 15 months without any kind of injury. We’re very proud of that,” he said.
Along with the seed industry, Sommer Brothers has evolved over the years. In 1973, Sommer Brothers was one of five Midwest seed companies that formed Golden Harvest, then the nation’s largest independently owned agricultural seed company that continues today under the Syngenta banner.
While growing seed for corn and soybeans is more involved than raising a crop for market, this year’s wet spring hasn’t provided any major problems, said Steve Sommer, 58, grandson of the founder.
Plant manager Hufnagel admitted that planting “was a little bit later than usual” but said good weather “will catch us up in a hurry.”
Not all of the changes instituted at the company have been planned. Ted Sommer recalled the tornado that tore across Tazewell County five years ago that destroyed five buildings on the site.
“I was in downtown Peoria at the Peoria Civic Center when they made the announcement about the tornado,” he said. The next day he surveyed the damage. “Telephone poles were lying down all across the road,” he recalled.
“That’s when we put in the steel building,” said Jim Sommer, referring to one of the more recent additions to the business.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 firstname.lastname@example.org.