Nestled in the heart of the Texas Panhandle, a seed company has been working behind the scenes to continue making advancements in the sorghum industry.
In 1938, C.G. Richardson bought the land that would become the location of a leader in the sorghum industry. He put up wooden granaries and bought a portable cleaner in order to store the grain for his neighbors. When they were ready to get their seed, he would clean and sack it for them and charge them a cleaning and storage fee. This went on until 1953 when he dug one of the first irrigation wells in Deaf Smith County, Texas.
In 1955, Richardson Seeds had their “birth date” in the seed business. This was the first time Richardson Seeds sold a bag of seed with their own name on it.
One year later, researchers at Texas A&M University crossed male and female sorghum, creating the first hybrid. This led to Richardson being approached by the Deaf Smith County extension agent who asked him to produce the seed, which he agreed to. This made Richardson the first person to produce a hybrid sorghum seed, which they have been doing ever since.
This led to Richardson Seeds producing A&M’s hybrid seeds until the 1980s. In the 80s state legislature passed a law requiring state universities to collect intellectual property for anything they had developed. This law put an end to almost all public breeding programs.
However, Richardson Seeds still manages sorghum hybrids.
In 1981, C.G. Richardson’s grandson, Larry Richardson, graduated college at Texas Tech University and returned home to work in the seed business. In 1982, Larry started Richardson Seed’s first breeding program while he continued his work in production.
Richardson Seeds still works exclusively with sorghum and is one of the few companies doing so.
“Sorghum is 100 percent what we are committed to as a seed crop,” Larry said, ”We’ve been doing it for over 60 years now.”
With 50 percent of their sales being international, they are far from a small company. David Drinnon, the CFO at Richardson Seeds, said their seeds will end up pretty much anywhere sorghum can be grown.
“Whether you’re selling seed here, the Ukraine, in Russia or Mexico, they have different needs, but you hope that several of those hybrids will work in multiple locations,” Drinnon said.
Drinnon said that regardless of if they ship it direct to a location, their distributors will end up covering the majority of the countries in their area.
However, they private label for other companies, so outside of the Texas panhandle, it is unlikely to see bags of seed with the Richardson Seed label. They do not want to affect the sales of other companies, so they stay in a small area of the panhandle.
“We process and package for other companies as our primary business.” Drinnon said, ”We don’t really advertise our name a whole lot, because we want to help our customers do their job well and stay out of the way.”
Richardson Seeds is one of the largest hybrid breeding programs with a full portfolio of sorghums.
“Monsanto and Pioneer, they may do more grains, but they don’t do more in total sorghum portfolio than we do,” Richardson said.
We want to help our customers do their job well.-David Drinnon
In 2008 the United Sorghum Checkoff Program officially began and contacted Richardson seeds to restart the sorghum conversion program.
Larry said they were chosen to do the program because they were 100 percent sorghum and they already had ties to the program from their past experiences with Texas A&M.
For five years, Richardson Seeds helped to diversify the germplasm and restart the program. Over these five years, they released back 153 so anyone who has received new germplasm in the last five years got it from Richardson Seeds.
Drinnon said the sorghum conversion program was an important program for the sorghum industry.
“That program was all designed to expand the germplasm diversity for the entire sorghum industry,” Drinnon said, ”So they brought it here and we converted it to usable lines.”
At the conclusion of their involvement Richardson Seeds released the program back to A&M. They still have the ability to assist if needed, but they likely will not have to for a long time.
In 2011, Richardson Seeds fully automated their packaging lines. They were one of the first companies to do so, and it descended their need for warehouse employees from 22 to five. Larry said these five employees can produce 10,000 bags each day during the busy season.
Unlike most companies who have a “field day” for their clients, Richardson Seeds gives each customer their own day. From the middle of August until October, their facility will see more than 100 visitors. This gives the client the chance to see the facility and discuss what they need for their markets. Through doing this, Richardson Seeds and the customer create a one on one relationship that
“We actually work with the customer to build what they want,” Richardson said.
Drinnon said they often have a line of products that can fit their customer’s needs. He said these customers help to provide input into how they can improve a line.
Creating a hybrid sorghum seed is no easy task. From a blank slate to a marketable product takes seven to 10 years. With all the crosses developed, many will likely fail. Out of hundreds of hybrids, they may only have one make it. With such a diverse ecosystem around the world, finding a universal hybrid for everybody is virtually impossible.
Drinnon said that that they may have different environments, but he hopes that some hybrids have the ability to work in multiple places.
In 2009, Richardson Seeds received a major change. Drinnon said the owners were ready to retire and wanted to see some returns from the company they had worked so hard to build. They sold Richardson Seeds to the Australian based company Nufarm.
“It just kind of worked out as far as timing, but they were interested in moving into the sorghum business,” Drinnon said.
Drinnon said recording and accountability were two big changes that came with the buyout. He said instead of answering to their board of directors and they now have bosses that answer to the board of directors. He said financing is now handled outside of the United States instead of being primarily local bank financing.
A lot has changed over the 60 years Richardson Seeds has been part of the Sorghum industry and they continue to make advancements each and every day.