Walk through Rupp Seeds’ warehouses of seeds with Chairman Roger Rupp, and you’ll understand his passion for developing new seed varieties.
“There’s Sun Spot buttercup—a great tasting one and a favorite in Europe. Here’s Gold Rush—a pumpkin variety that’s helped us gain a sizable position in that category. But, I’m most excited about the potential for WeeeeeOne, a miniature version, stem and all, of the larger Jack-o-lantern pumpkins. And here are Celebration and Table Star—two great-tasting winter acorns and top sellers with our roadside market growers.”
Outside, Roger’s enthusiasm continues as he points out acres of trial fields for peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash, gourds and corn, including 200 sweet corn varieties like the latest triple sweet varieties and another that reduces the need for insecticide by as much as 85 percent.
“I’m interested in new seed developments for growing food—not what grandma used to grow.” Indeed, grandma would be amazed at many of the seed innovations this third-generation family business has advanced in its 66-year history as one of the country’s lone independent seed companies.
Founded in Wauseon in 1946 by Roger’s father, Sylvan Rupp, the company was one of the first to produce privately developed soybeans and eventually market some of the first branded seed products. These early successes led Rupp Seeds to become a distribution partner for a national seed company and significantly multiply its growth.
In 1972, Roger became a partner in his father’s business and led the company’s foray into research and plant breeding.
As Roger took the reins, he shrewdly followed his father’s wisdom and expanded into the vegetable seed arena. Roger remembers his dad saying a vegetable seed business would be good in a down economy, like the WWII days when the government promoted vegetable gardens. “When times get tough, gardens get bigger,” Roger says his dad would say.
Initially, he sold to both home gardeners and commercial growers but quickly decided to focus exclusively on commercial growers, primarily smaller ones.
“Being new to the vegetable market when some companies had 50-year histories in the business, we realized they wanted the larger customers,” says Roger. “And we were happy to take on the smaller growers whether they were the roadside markets or suppliers to farm markets.” Today, more than 90 percent of the company’s vegetable seed customers are these small growers with roadside markets, and the niche thrives as the buy local movement drives sales.
Over the past 25 years, Rupp Seeds’ vegetable business has enjoyed increased annual sales and today this segment makes up 55 to 60 percent of its total sales with 8,500 grower customers in the United States, Canada, South America, Europe and Africa.
THE QUEST FOR NEW VARIETIES
Roger attributes much of the company’s success to its research and plant breeding program.
Each year Rupp Seeds conducts extensive tests of new vegetable varieties to identify which ones will join the 1,100 products in its catalog. The 50 new varieties in this year’s catalog had to meet tough standards in crop yield, disease resistance, weather challenges, maturity rates and marketability.
“The diversity of seed varieties creates opportunities and challenges for growers,” said Lisa Schacht, president of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association. “Each time there are new varieties, we want to try them but there’s a risk they won’t perform.” She said growers rely on Rupp and other seed companies to test seeds so they know what works in their region. “They’re good at trying to understand the disease and pest risks on the horizon and address better seed vigor and germination.”
One Rupp Seeds customer, Steve Polter of Polters’ Berry Farm, purchases pumpkin and ornamental gourd seeds. He says his family’s farm was looking for a pumpkin to supply to its 40 farm market and agritainment venue customers that prefer larger sizes than typically supplied to grocery stores. For four years, the Polters have grown Gold Medal, a top-selling Rupp hybrid pumpkin with an appealing dark color and sturdy stem handle. The Polters also ordered the new WeeeeeOne pumpkin to plant for 2012.
So what excites Roger about the company’s future, besides turning over the business to the next generation? He holds great hopes for more seed advances, whether it’s a great-tasting red corn for a restaurant chain’s chips, a disease-resistant squash with high beta carotene or a superior-tasting butternut for Europeans’ gourmet palates.
“The food business is the place to be,” says the forever passionate seedsman. “The world eats better because of us.”
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Rupp invests in a breeding program to develop its own Rupp brand of cucumber, gourd, pumpkin and squash varieties. Called Rupp Genetics, the program’s paid off—today 30 percent of sales are from Rupp brand seeds, and these products have opened markets in South America, Canada and Africa. When a plant breeder joined the company in 2000, he brought valuable genetics experience in the edible soybean segment. Rupp Genetics has been refining its edible soybean products, including larger edamame beans that are sweet and high in protein. Rupp Genetics also found great potential breeding winter squash, especially for markets in Africa where they’re a popular food and in Europe where they’re being promoted by culinary chefs. Such successes have led Rupp to now become the world’s largest distributor of acorn squash seeds.