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An Exemplary Breeding Career

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
filed under: Hybrid Selection/Planting

The National Sunflower Association’s Gold Award is presented annually to “individuals who have contributed extraordinarily to the overall sunflower industry, either through their occupation or through the association.” Dr. Gerhardt (Gary) Fick, the 2014 Gold Award recipient, is an exemplary model for that criterion.

Fick is highly respected as a top sunflower breeder not only in the United States but, indeed, around the globe. After beginning his career with USDA — where he was instrumental in the development and release of the first U.S. sunflower hybrids (including 894) — he went on to a long career as a commercial sunflower breeder and founding partner with SIGCO Research, Seed America and Seeds 2000. He has received numerous professional awards through the years, including the International Sunflower Association’s highest honor, the Pustovoit Award, in 2000.

It is ironic, yet reflective of the era in which he grew up, that Gary Fick’s introduction to sunflower was in the form of weed seed. “The first time I saw sunflower seeds was in a crops judging contest at Perham (Minn.) High School,” recalls the 1960 Perham graduate. “We had to pick out the weed seeds from grain samples, and I found sunflower seeds in there.”

That was, of course, a time when commercial sunflower fields — especially oil-type — were few and far between in Minnesota and the Dakotas. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Cargill and Minnesota Linseed (later Honeymead Products) began contracting oil sunflower acreage in the Red River Valley to replace their declining crush of flaxseed (precipitated by the growing popularity of latex paints). Those early acres were planted to open-pollinated varieties, one of the most notable being the Russian-developed Peredovik.

Sunflower was not on Fick’s radar screen when he went off to the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1960 to pursue an agronomy major. While there, he came to know Dr. Robert (Bob) Robinson, whose UM agronomy career encompassed more than 40 years. Robinson was a veritable sunflower pioneer, having initiated research on the crop in 1948. Two open-pollinated confection varieties that he developed — Arrowhead and Mingren — were widely grown in Minnesota during the pre-hybrid era.

After receiving his B.S. in agronomy in 1964, Fick went on to earn an M.S. from the university in December 1966. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve shortly thereafter and then, following six months of active duty, returned to the University of Minnesota as a graduate assistant.

“I enjoyed my job at Minnesota; but it was becoming clear that if I wanted to be in charge of my own breeding program, I would need a Ph.D. degree,” Fick recounts. That objective led him to the University of California-Davis, where he received his Ph.D. in genetics in 1971. By then he was married to Jane (Stensaas), and they had welcomed the first of the couple’s four sons.

Jobs in his chosen field were relatively scarce at the time, Fick says, but he did learn of two positions based at North Dakota State University in Fargo — only about an hour’s drive from the farm near Vergas, Minn., where he grew up. One was a corn breeder position; the other that of sunflower breeder with USDA. He applied and was hired for the USDA position, and the young family moved back to the Upper Midwest.

“The main goal of our research program with the USDA was to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant sunflower varieties for commercial production,” Fick wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Sunflowers Were Good to Me. “Much of our emphasis was to be on the feasibility of using cytoplasmic male sterility and genes for fertility restoration to produce hybrids. Hybrid corn had had a tremendous positive impact for farmers and the seed industry 30 years ago, and many research people were predicting the same could be true for sunflowers. Preliminary tests showed that hybrid sunflowers certainly had potential, but there still were a lot of unanswered questions as to whether the cytoplasmic male sterility system could be used successfully to produce large quantities of hybrid seed.”

Long story short, it could be — and was. Fick spearheaded a USDA breeding project that developed and released the initial sunflower hybrids. “Seed for the first hybrids was made available in limited quantities in 1972,” he noted, “and by 1974 nearly 50,000 acres of hybrids were grown.”

Hybrid 894 — produced by crossing a female parent from the program of Texas-based USDA breeder Murray Kinman with the male parent RHA 274 from the Fargo program — quickly became the industry standard. Hybrid 894 and several other very closely related hybrids were grown on as much as 80% of the U.S. oilseed sunflower acreage for nearly 10 years and also on large acreages in France, Canada and Argentina, Fick pointed out in his book. NDSU economists estimated a $60 million benefit to farmers in the 1977 crop year alone from the use of hybrid sunflower varieties (mainly 894).

“During the 1970s our research group released more than 30 parent lines for use by public and private breeders in producing new hybrids,” Fick noted. “Other than the first rust and downy mildew resistant lines, I suppose the release of male and female lines for producing confection hybrids was most important.”

The U.S. sunflower industry was expanding rapidly by the latter 1970s, and Fick became convinced “that the best opportunities with sunflowers were in the private sector, especially from a financial standpoint.” That conclusion resulted in his joining SIGCO Sun Products of Breckenridge, Minn., in early 1977. SIGCO’s president, Bob Schuler, had been in the sunflower business since the late 1950s, mainly contracting with farmers for confection ’flowers and then cleaning and processing the seed for the edible and birdfood markets. Bob’s son, Jay, had actually worked in Fick’s breeding program while a student at NDSU in the early ’70s.

In the spring of 1977, Bob Schuler, his brother George, son Jay, Duane Sondeland and Fick formed SIGCO Research. Their timing was excellent, as the U.S. sunflower sector grew tremendously during the next few years — reaching its all-time high of 5.6 million planted acres in 1979. SIGCO Research sales grew with it: “From a rather humble beginning in 1977, our sales jumped to $1.2 million in 1978 and to over $4 million in 1979,” Fick recounted.

Most of the company’s initial oil sunflower sales were of 894 (which, of course, was sold by other companies as well). International sales and royalties also began contributing to the SIGCO Research bottom line.

Though sunflower acreage was significantly lower in 1980 and subsequent years compared to 1979, SIGCO continued to do well. Fick had developed high-oil hybrids (448 and later 468) that proved very popular — especially since oilseed processors were beginning to pay premiums for oils above 40%. The company also came out with the industry’s first high-oleic hybrid, whose origin stemmed from a few seeds Fick had obtained in Yugoslavia in 1980. Also, in recognition that its long-term growth and profits could not be based strictly on sunflower, the company began marketing corn hybrids.

SIGCO Research was sold to Lubrizol Corporation in 1982, though Fick and Jay Schuler retained minority ownership and also stayed on as officers (Schuler as president/general manager and Fick as vice president/research director). When Lubrizol purchased Agrigenetics Corporation (now Mycogen) a few years later, SIGCO was merged into that company. Being one piece in a large corporate structure presented a variety of challenges, though; and while SIGCO’s sales were still strong (the company had become the number-one supplier of sunflower planting seed in the U.S.), both Schuler and later Fick eventually decided to move on.

Fick’s next venture was the formation of a company called Seed America in 1990. He and wife Jane were its sole stockholders, with each owning 50%. They later brought in their four sons — Mike, Darren, Damon and Jim — as minority stockholders. The goal was “to initially conduct contract research for several foreign companies, and also for Agrigenetics . . . and then later generate revenue by selling hybrid and/or parent sunflower seed to various accounts.”

In 1992, Fick, Jay Schuler and former SIGCO employee Leland Falck decided to form Seeds 2000. The idea was for Seeds 2000 to conduct retail sales and production of hybrid seed, with Seed America handling research and sale of seed to wholesale and international accounts. Eventually, Seed America was merged into Seeds 2000.

Fick remained with Seeds 2000 as vice president and research director until 2012, leading the development of popular sunflower hybrids like Bigfoot and Jaguar. The company grew substantially, producing and selling not only sunflower seed, but also corn and soybeans. Seeds 2000, headquartered in Breckenridge, was sold to Illinois-based Nuseed Americas in 2012.

Today, Gary Fick is largely retired. He remains a partner with Jay Schuler and others in an increasing successful blue corn breeding/marketing endeavor; but at age 72 enjoys focusing on family time (including eight grandchildren), traveling with Jane and spending winters in Arizona.

Given the huge role that sunflower has played in his life, Fick understandably remains very interested in this crop and the industry that has developed around it. Plant breeding has changed tremendously since the early ’70s, of course, as has the scope and location of sunflower acreage. Corn and soybeans have largely replaced sunflower in rotations around numerous Upper Midwest locales; meanwhile, new areas — especially in the more-arid districts of the Great Plains — have emerged as excellent fits for this crop.

While much of his breeding career preceded newer biotech tools such as molecular markers, doubled haploids and the [tongue-twisting and layman mind-boggling] single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), Fick knows such technologies are essential to a viable, healthy future for sunflower. “We need that sort of technology to keep up with corn and soybeans,” he affirms. “Gene mapping and other biotechnology will help sunflower breeders develop varieties more quickly — and better ones, too.

“But, there still needs to be ‘feet on the ground’ plant breeders and common sense,” he emphasizes — “people who talk to the farmers and know what the market needs. You can’t just rely on computer sheets and test tubes to know what the market wants.” Breeders need a lot of curiosity, Fick obviously knows; and they simultaneously need to be good listeners — to farmers, to visitors from other regions and countries, and to those out in the marketplace.

“So I don’t think traditional plant breeders will become obsolete. But we sure need the future that I think these newer technologies can help provide.”

Yet as he looks back on a career filled with top-tier breeding accomplishments, worldwide travels and overall business success, Fick returns to relationships when asked about his greatest satisfactions. “I’ve worked with a lot of really good people over the years,” he observes. “Not only at SIGCO Research and Seeds 2000, but throughout the industry.

“I always felt good about farmers producing a good crop by growing a variety that I might have had some hand in developing,” Gary Fick concludes in his typically modest fashion. “Seeing farmers have good success with 894 — and then later with other hybrids as I moved down the line — was very satisfying.” — Don Lilleboe

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