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FINE-TUNING FOOD
CANADIAN FIRM GIVES "FULL-SERVICE' NEW IDENTITIES
It's old news that many businesses claim to provide "one-stop shopping" for a myriad of goods and services. In a world where scientific advances seem to evolve on a daily basis, it's no surprise that at least one firm would specialize in one-stop shopping for identity-preservation technology.

If you're not familiar with the concept, identity preservation (IP) in the plant kingdom simply means segregating and maintaining specific varieties that have inherent traits throughout the entire production process from the seed to the end user. Traits can include size, color and protein content, for example.

IP products go back at least 30 years to relatively quiet beginnings. As consumer demands have become more sophisticated, specific and complicated in recent years, more attention and importance has been placed on the process and technology in IP.

CANADIAN LEADER IN IP

Now meet the good folks at W.G. Thompson & Sons, Ltd. This Blenheim, Ontario-based agribusiness firm has become one of Canada's leaders in seed research and IP technologies, if not one of the most prominent in North America. What's more, Thompson & Sons, founded in 1924, is a major supplier of wholesale and retail IP grains and food products to all parts of Canada and to 25 foreign countries.

The Thompson IP repertory includes corn, wheat, soybeans, navy beans, kidney, pinto and yellow eye beans for processor and table use. One specific example is Thompson's development of various winter wheat varieties that meet flour millers' specific needs for amylase enzyme and protein content.

Thompson facilities include 15 grain elevators and four seed processing plants in Ontario, a navy bean processing plant in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and a soybean processing plant in Stockbridge, Michigan. Each IP elevator has three to eight intake legs, making delivery of specific IP varieties convenient for contract growers. Total capacity at each elevator runs from one million to 2.6 million bushels.

The research staff includes five full-time seed breeders, focusing on corn, soybeans, navy beans, and cereal grains.

All Thompson IP commodities are currently contract-grown in Canada on a total of 175,000 acres. Thompson is the largest Canadian exporter of food grade soybeans and dry beans.

IP BEGINNINGS IN CORN MILLING

Thompson & Son's IP endeavors commenced in the mid-1970's when the company supplied corn for milling to the Kellogg cereal plant in London, Ontario.

"We developed IP corn hybrids that did a better job relative to color and flake size," says John Cowan, general manager of Thompson's Hyland Seed Division. "That became our first identity-preserved situation with products developed from our own seed research program. We sold hybrid seeds to farmers in Ontario who grew and isolated the corn, then sold it back to us for premium prices. We isolated that particular hybrid in storage reserved just for Kellogg, and Kellogg paid a premium for the end product."

Striving to create a win/win/win situation, Thompson's seed breeders developed cereal corn varieties that would provide high yield and standability for farmers, as well as superior end-use traits for Kellogg's.

By 1983, some 30,000 contract acres of Kellogg-specific corn hybrids were produced in Ontario for Thompson and directed to the Kellogg plant in London, Ontario.

Thompson's next big step in the ever-expanding world of identity preservation involved soybeans. "Our company's bean business started with navy beans, and even before World War II Thompson employees developed a working knowledge of navy bean segregation, especially in the areas of bean color, size and condition," says John O'Brien, Thompson's food products manager for edible soybeans, wheat and IP products. "That early work provided the basis for our current endeavors with IP soybeans."

It wasn't until 1990 that Thompson started developing specific IP soybean varieties. That same year, China, a major supplier of soybeans to Asian markets, decided not to export soybeans for six to eight months. The Japanese are major consumers of miso, tofu, and natto (all soybean products), so China's export restrictions posed a threat to Japan's food supply. Thompson was one of several North American soybean exporters that seized the opportunity and started developing IP soybean varieties for the Japanese market.

"There was huge potential and we went in many directions," says Cowan. Thompson wasted no time developing 25 to 30 varieties for bean size and color, as well as protein, oil, sugar and isoflavin levels.

FULL CIRCLE SOYBEAN PARTNERS

Just as Thompson is a third-generation family-owned and operated business, Tri-Knight Farms, also based in Blenheim, is a third generation Thompson customer and supplier. In addition to various acreages of corn, and wheat, Dave and Bill Knight raise 400 acres of soybeans, most of which are IP varieties for Thompson, and they purchase 90 percent of their soybean seed from the firm.

"We work with a written contract," Dave says. "Thompson sets the price, usually so much per bushel, although new varieties are sometimes sold on a price per acre basis." The Knights have been growing IP beans since 1993. Currently, they produce seven different soybean varieties for Thompson.

Dave is quick to point out that growing and harvesting identity-preserved crops is a labor-intensive undertaking. "We have to completely clean the combine before harvesting any particular variety," he says. "That means pulling the combine into the shop, dropping all the doors and vacuuming the combine thoroughly. Even one stray bean of another variety could result in an entire load being rejected." Astute attention to cleaning the planter between seed varieties is also required.

"We work closely with Thompson employees on all aspects of production relative to IP varieties," Dave continues. "We pay attention to the new contract varieties available and often start with a small acreage to see how they will fit into our crop production plans."

The Knights enjoyed 20 percent more profit with their IP beans last year than they did with conventional ones. "Prices were low, but yields were good," Dave explains. "Usually, the profit margins are equal."

If IP beans require more work than conventional beans, and if the profit margins are normally about the same, why do the Knights bother with IP varieties?

In order to maintain a competitive edge we want to be in something different and develop our own specialty niche," Dave emphasizes. "We work very well with Thompson, and if we stick with it and do well, we will maintain or improve our margins."

EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE

On the international scene, Thompson's IP commodity customers include A. Poortman (London), Ltd. based in London, England. "We are importers of a wide range of beans and edible seeds," says Jeremy Isaacs, a trader for Poortman. "We sell to wholesale and manufacturing customers throughout Great Britain and Europe."

Last year (1999) Poortman purchased several thousand tons of soybeans from Thompson, including conventional and organic varieties. Most of the beans were then sold to processors of tofu, soy sauce or soymilk. While soybeans are the primary product that Poortman procures from Thompson on a regular basis, the British company occasionally purchases some Thompson white beans and pinto beans.

The IP characteristic has also become a factor for Poortman's buyers, Isaacs reports. "That has come about because of the anti-GMO situation in Europe and the paranoia that has resulted because of the press," Isaacs explains. "At first our customers just wanted non-GMO products. Now they want IP commodities because they provide an even higher level of quality control. We have worked closely with Thompson to build a successful IP program together," he emphasizes.

"We don't buy Canadian soybeans from anyone else but Thompson," Isaacs adds. "They run a first class operation and they work hard to make certain that all of their customersí needs are being met."

"We continually strive to develop the right seed for improved end use products," Thompson's O'Brien emphasizes. "Our challenge and goal is to upgrade and preserve genetic systems to meet both producer and processor needs, as consumers demand a higher degree of accountability and traceability in the food supply."

"When it comes to the possibilities, we've just begun to scratch the surface," Cowan adds. AM

 

Linda L. Leake is a freelance writer based in Wilmington, N.C.


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