Saturday, November 22, 2008

Seed Capital

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They look like pumpkins in the field, and the end product is marketed as "pumpkin seeds," but technically they are squash and squash seeds.

Despite the elastic terminology, Autumn Seed Inc. has firmed up its grasp on the market in the past 60 years. Howard Ropp's father started the business back in 1943, producing 100,000 pounds of seeds. Now Howard and his son Greg oversee a company putting out 2.5 million pounds in a good year.

"We're the only ones in the U.S. doing this," Greg Ropp said. "Our only competitor is China. And they can't match us for quality."

The Ropps contract with farmers in Oregon's Willamette Valley to grow Golden Delicious, a variety of squash with high seed yield. They credit the valley's hot summers and cool autumns for the sweetness of the seeds.

"Normally we have about 30 different guys growing about 2,000 acres for us," Greg Ropp said. "This year a lot of them went to wheat, so there are fewer acres growing. We'll turn out about 1.6 million pounds this year."

He said he settles contracts on a handshake. The farmer agrees to plant and tend the crop; Autumn Seed harvests the seeds, cleans and dries them, ships them to processors, and cuts a check for the farmer based on dry weight.

"We keep each grower's batch separate, and we send the check by Dec. 20. A farmer can make about $1,200 per acre, which is about 1,000 pounds. Yields usually range from 900 to 1,300 pounds per acre."

Autumn Seed's machinery and techniques are proprietary, to the point of fabricating its own equipment.

"We build our own harvesters, which handle up to 60,000 pounds a day," Howard Ropp said. "We've got nine of them, and run six at a time, but we don't sell them."

"The Chinese would love to have these machines," Greg Ropp added.

"Our harvest runs from September through about the second week of November," he said. "We've got about 15 full-time workers right now, and four full-time year-round - two full-time fabricators and two in the warehouse. A lot of retired guys come work for us during harvest, driving and whatnot."

The dried squash seeds are shipped to several roasters, "David and Sons being one you'd recognize," Greg Ropp said. Once the seeds are roasted and ready for market, then they can be called pumpkin seeds, he said.

In the field

The harvesters extract the seeds from the squash, with the flesh either dumped out the back as fertilizer for the next crop or used as cattle feed.

"You never follow squash with squash," Greg Ropp said. "It's a three- or four-year rotation. Most growers follow squash with wheat, then with grass or corn."

Autumn Seed also has about 25 acres in organic hull-less seeds. "This one is actually a pumpkin," he said.

After harvest is over and the last batch of seeds is out the door, Howard Ropp heads for warmer climes.

"We've got a ranch down in West Texas, raising alfalfa and a few cows," he said.

Greg Ropp and his wife and three kids stay in the Willamette Valley, raising sweet corn and grass seed.

He has also coached the basketball team at Santiam Christian School - "this will be my 18th year."

Greg Ropp said he is concerned about how the economy will affect his niche market. "When times are tight, people don't buy pumpkin seeds. They're a snack food, so at the convenience store, you may not want to spend a dollar on a bag of seeds.

"We'll be fine for next year. The year after that, I don't know. My dad and I look three or four years down the road to see what we'll need to replace in tractors and forklifts and other equipment. Any new investments depend on tax incentives.

"Our business has been doing wonderful until the high prices of fertilizer and fuel hit. People look for easier-to-grow crops, with lower risk.

"As for that $1.20 per pound, we've never had to drop our prices to our growers, and we sure don't want to."


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