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DuPont Pioneer celebrates plant's 75th year at Algona

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 10/03/2013 4:35 PM

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ALGONA, Iowa —Employees and community members last week celebrated the 75th anniversary of the DuPont Pioneer Algona Corn Production facility with a lunch and plant tours.

Ranney Leek, 96, started working at the plant in 1945 after serving in the Army in World War II. He retired from Pioneer in 1980.

"I'm probably the oldest living employee," Leek said.

Leek earned 55 cents per hour when he started and worked 60 hours per week. Seed corn was $8 per bag.

He started by sweeping floors and shoveling corn and ended his career as construction superintendent. The last seven years he traveled across the country constructing buildings. He agreed to the travel because Verdell, his wife of 64 years, could come along.

Leek said there have been a lot of changes at the plant.

"There is not a building left that was here when I came," he said.

When he started everything was done by hand. Dryers were on old truck frames that moved from bin to bin. The burners ran on fuel oil instead of gas.

"I did everything at the plant at one time or another," Leek said. "I was field manager overseeing planting and detasseling. I enjoyed working here. This is a good company. I was never out of work a day."

Brian Bormann, production location manager, said he is testament to the fact that "you can come home again." He grew up just south of Algona in St. Joseph and started working for Pioneer in eighth grade by hand pollinating corn at the research farm. He graduated from Iowa State University in agronomy and agricultural business. After working for Land O'Lakes, he returned to Pioneer and worked at production locations in Florida, Nebraska, Michigan and Oregon before coming to Algona two years ago.

Algona means a lot to Pioneer, Bormann said. It's home to research, sales and production facilities.

Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer, said that when the Algona facility opened in 1938, the average U.S. corn yield was 30 bushels per acre. Today, the national corn yield is 160 bushels.

Growth in productivity is one of the country's greatest technological innovations, Schickler said, but the challenge is as great today as it was 90 years ago when Henry A. Wallace started the company.

"By 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the globe who need food, fuel and materials that come from production agriculture," Schickler said.

Schickler said that agriculture is an optimistic science and he is confident that it can meet the challenge.

"In North America and Brazil, we have GPS technology, precision agriculture, the Internet and other tools that make agricultural productivity touchable and tangible every waking hour," Schickler said. "In other parts of the world, agriculture is at a subsistence level, and we have to bring some of these opportunities to farmers in Africa, Asia and China."

He shared that in 1891 George Washington Carver became the first black professor at Iowa State University, and he befriended Henry A. Wallace, a student at the time. Wallace went on to become U.S. secretary of agriculture, commerce secretary, vice president and eventually founder of Pioneer.

As ag secretary Wallace started the experimental agricultural research station in Mexico and hired Norman Borlaug, who developed semi-dwarf high-yielding disease resistant wheat.

Borlaug took the wheat varieties to India, Pakistan and Mexico and triggered the Green Revolution.

"Norman Borlaug is credited with saving 1 billion from starvation," Schickler said. "We're all in this together and increasing productivity can have a dramatic impact on the world. There's no better location to demonstrate how agriculture can meet the challenges than right here in Algona with 75 years of delivering seed to growers in the northern part of the United States. "

Algona Mayor Lynn Kueck said that when the Pioneer plant opened in 1938, jobs were scarce as the country struggled to lift itself out of the Depression.

"Pioneer was the life blood of the Algona community," Kueck said. "Our retail sector started to grow. We've been blessed to have other good companies join Pioneer like Snap On, Hormel and Pharmacist Mutual."

The Algona facility is a medium-sized plant, Bormann said. DuPont Pioneer's largest production plants are in irrigated areas.

"What we hang our hat on is shipping," Bormann said. "As far as shipping units of corn, we're one of the top two plants. We service northern Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas for commercial needs."

Algona is the company's northern-most North American production plant. The plant at Chatham, Ont., is actually farther south.

The production facility receives seed corn harvested on the ear. It's husked, sorted, dried, shelled, conditioned, treated, bagged or boxed and stored at the plant. Robots palletize and depalletize bags of seed. The facility can apply up to 11 seed treatments.

The 2013 harvest started Sept. 3 at Algona with the first corn coming from Oregon. The non-GMO seed headed for Europe. Most of the seed corn that goes through the plant is grown in the Algona area or north of Mason City. Bormann expects harvest will run through mid-October.