RURAL CATLIN — In the early part of last century, it wasn’t unusual for a seed salesman to also be a farmer. Full-time seed sales people are now the norm, but there are still some farmers who also sell seeds.
Case in point, Greg Learnard — the third generation of his family to be in the business. Catlin’s Learnard Seed Services has been around since the Great Depression.
The late Elmer Learnard, Greg’s grandfather, started the business in 1936. His son and Greg’s father, Ben, carried on the tradition.
Eighty-five years later, Greg Learnard and his two sons remain actively involved in selling corn and soybeans in addition to farming.
Back in the day, according to Ben, seed corn sold for about $17 a bushel.
“You can’t buy much seed nowadays for $17,” he said.
It is now sold by units, which go by weight.
But there’s more than just seed in the kernels. The seed also has inputs of insecticides and environmentally friendly herbicides engineered into the corn.
Ben Learnard said the job was harder on the back then, too, “because 60-pound bags were delivered in 2-ton trucks and were unloaded by hand, incoming and outgoing.”
Greg, who is a retailer for Bayer, sells DeKalb corn and Asgrow soybeans.
“Bayer is big in crop protection,” he said. “They sell a lot of herbicides and fungicides. I think it was natural to get into the seed side of it as well.”
When Elmer Learnard got into the business in 1936, DeKalb had just started using farmer dealers. Lyle Trisler helped connect him with DeKalb. Ironically, Trisler started his own seed company a few years later.
Greg is one of the top three farmer dealers in Illinois in terms of volume and sales.
“Farmer dealers are getting to be a rare breed,” he said. “As farms have gotten bigger, they don’t have the time.”
He works two full-time jobs with farming and seed sales. But it works for him because the peak seasons complement each other.
“When I started in ’92, it was a fun little thing to make extra money in the wintertime,” Learnard said. “Now it’s kind of developed into a full-time business, so I have a pretty busy day usually. The two seasons don’t overlap too much. When everybody gets done with harvest, I’m done as well and can put a seed order together.”
Learnard also grows soybeans for seed for Bayer.
“It ends up in a bag somewhere to plant next year,” he said.
There are premiums to working for the company, but there’s extra work involved as well, such as making sure all of the trucks and combines are cleaned out for purity purposes.
Much of the corn he and his sons grow is sold commercially to Bunge in Danville.
Former customer Doug Miller of rural Indianola, now retired, said his family goes back many years with the Learnards. Grandfathers, fathers and now sons all know one another.
“Our grandparents did work together on co-op boards, and my dad bought seed corn from his dad,” said Miller, who also bought seed from the family. “I’ve been farming since ’71, when we were buying DeKalb. We’ve been friends for several generations.”
He said he is happy with Greg Learnard as a salesman.
“It wasn’t just about sales with Greg,” he said. “He was always trying to be on the cutting edge of technology. Greg’s always been good and has gone with me to several seminars.”
Miller said Learnard also holds workshops where he brings in speakers to provide the latest farming information.
When Miller retired, he rented some of his farm ground to Learnard and his sons.
Both Greg and Ben Learnard say the human element is big in the business, noting sales calls and visits with friends, neighbors and customers are perks of the job.
Ben said in days gone by, the companies would provide merit points, which the salesmen could redeem for items.
“When we married, my mom gave us her collected merits, and we were supplied many household items” from them, he said.
That system was discontinued, and the merits now go to the customers.
Ben Learnard also pointed to one other change. Corn was planted at 17,000 seeds per acre years ago. Now it’s 36,000 seeds per acre.