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Productivity gains highlight Pioneer’s 75 years in Algona

Ranney Leek has been retired for almost as many years as he worked at Pioneer’s Algona corn production plant, but the 96-year-old is still recognized at the place where he spent his entire working career.

Leek rubbed elbows with some of the company’s top executives, including DuPont Pioneer President Paul Schickler, recently at an open house marking the plant’s 75th anniversary.

"I enjoyed working here," said Leek, who landed a job at the Pioneer facility after returning home from World War II in 1945. He worked for Pioneer for 35 years before retiring in 1980. "I was never out of work a day. I always had work here," he said.

Pioneer built the Algona corn production plant in 1938, bringing much-needed jobs to the community on the heels of the Great Depression, said Algona Mayor Lynn Kueck.

"At that time, Pioneer was the lifeblood of the community," he said. "We are very thankful for what Pioneer has done for our economy."

Leek’s career there started sev­en years later, encompassing a myriad of jobs while earning an initial wage of 55 cents an hour.

"I did everything," he recalled. "I started (with) sweeping floors and scooping corn."

Much has changed over the years, both at the Algona Pioneer plant and corn production in general. Automation has taken over many of the back-breaking jobs of yesteryear, and the facility has been expanded and renovated several times to handle ever-increasing corn yields.

"There isn’t a building left here that was here when I came," Leek said. "When I started here, it was all handwork."

Production booms

When the plant was built, ar­­rangements were made with local farmers to grow between 800 and 900 acres of seed. Today, the plant conditions more than 1 million units of seed annually, taking in grain grown locally as well as trucked in from other states. The facility employs 70 full-time workers and 150 seasonal em­ployees.

The Algona corn production plant "hangs its hat" on its conditioning and shipping op­­erations, ranking as one of Pioneer’s most active facilities in that regard, said location manager Brian Bormann.

The production facility re­­ceives seed corn harvested on the ear. It is then husked, sorted, dried, shelled, conditioned, treated, bagged or boxed, and stored at the plant. A new seed-treating system installed in 2010 mixes and applies any of 11 different seed treatments depending on customer demand.

"There are so many different treatments available. Farmers have a lot more options," said Bormann. "Thirty years ago, there was one treatment."

In addition to handling corn grown locally by farmers around Algona and Mason City, the Algona plant conditions non-GMO corn grown in eastern Ore­gon and Washington and ultimately destined for the European Union market, Bormann said.

As the northern-most seed corn production plant in Pioneer’s North American network, the Alg­­ona location also handles a large volume of short-season corn, said Bormann, who has his own lengthy history with Pioneer.

He was raised on a farm near St. Joseph 10 miles south of Algona, where his dad grew Pioneer seed corn. Bormann began working for Pioneer as a teenager hand-pollinating corn.

He graduated from Iowa State with a degree in ag business and agronomy and joined Pioneer a year later, holding jobs at company locations in Florida, Nebraska, Michigan and Oregon before be­­coming manager of the Algona production plant two years ago.

"I’m a testament that you can come home again," he said.

Promising future

The Algona plant remains a key piece in Pioneer’s operations, just as it was 75 years ago, said Schickler, the company president. The productivity gains made over the past seven decades will need to continue in order to feed a growing global population, he said.

Corn yields when the Algona production plant was built in 1938 were about 30 bushels per acre, Schickler noted. Today, trendline U.S. corn yields are nearly 160 bushels per acre.

"That’s a tremendous revolution. I would argue that’s one of the most successful technological innovations in all of American history," Schickler said. "That challenge has not stopped. That challenge is as great today as it was 75 years ago. Through all of us working together, I think we can meet those challenges. And there’s no better location to meet those challenges than right here in Algona."