May 10, 2018
By Caroline Brauer
On a farm outside Hemingford, Neb., more than 120 farmers gathered at the Cullan Seed Farms 26th Annual Customer Appreciation Day to discuss and prepare for the upcoming wheat planting season. Among them is Steve Knox. Casually dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, his unpretentious manner and quick smile allow him to mingle easily with the group. It would be hard to guess he leads an organization that has been helping farmers in Nebraska for more than 100 years: the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association (NCIA). In fact, the NCIA operates much like its leader — unknown and unheard-of by most outside the agriculture industry. Yet the organization plays a huge role not only in the wheat industry, but also in the production of other commodities in Nebraska as well.
“Because certified seed isn’t in the name, a lot of people don't know what we do,” said Knox.
A small nonprofit organization, NCIA manages the certification of crop seeds; sets and monitors parameters to guarantee the identity and purity of certified seed varieties; shares with the public and farmers who certified suppliers are; and provides education opportunities and information to help improve agronomic practices of farmers in the state. In short, the NCIA guarantees farmers they can buy and plant certified seed with confidence.
Over 100 years strong
The NCIA started in 1902 as the Nebraska Corn Improvers’ Association. Its first objectives included finding ways to improve the yield and quality of corn. But much like the farmers it represented, the association evolved and adapted over time. The organization incorporated in 1907; in 1911, a state seed analyst position was added with the adoption of the Nebraska Pure Seed Act. After much discussion, the name changed in 1920 to the Nebraska Crop Growers’ Association. The first steps of the association becoming what it’s known for today were taken in 1921.
The Nebraska Crop Growers’ Association began certifying seed in 1921. The process had no legal status at the time, but operated similarly to today. In 1931, the Nebraska House of Representatives passed H.R. 67, a state seed law which provided for the certification of seeds and plant parts intended for propagation or sale in Nebraska. The law specified that the certification program would operate on a self-supporting basis. The Nebraska Crop Growers’ Association was designated as the official agency to implement the law and certify small grains (like wheat), alfalfa, corn and sorghum. In later years, soybeans, field beans, grasses, small-seeded legumes, millet and turfgrass sod were also added to the program. And in 1942, the organization name changed to the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association.
“It always amazes me as to the vision many producers had at the turn of the century” said Chris Cullan, a fourth-generation wheat farmer and certified seed producer from Hemingford. “They understood the value of access and control to preserve good things like seed, and enforcement through accountability.”
Today the NCIA operates in the Plant Science Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus. Members pay fees for services that fund both the office and seed lab. According to Knox, being self-funded is important for NCIA as it allows the association to remain independent.
“We’re an unbiased, not-for-profit organization,” Knox said. “We do unbiased inspections. We’re out there giving everybody the facts of what we see in the field, and that’s a benefit to our growers. They know what’s out there and that they’re selling or buying quality seed.”
The addition of the seed lab in 1941 also benefited the organization. Here, NCIA can test varieties for issues like germination, purity (no noxious weeds), diseases, test weight and seed counts. In fact, the NCIA lab is recognized as an official member of the Association of Official Seed Analysts. NCIA is also a member of the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies, a group of 46 organizations across Canada, Argentina, Chile, Australia and the U.S. that meets yearly to set base or minimum standards for production of certified seed. NCIA is the only member of AOSCA to have a lab recognized as an official member of the Association of Official Seed Analysts.
By definition, certified seed in Nebraska must “meet minimum standards for varietal purity, germination mechanical purity and be free from certain diseases and objectionable weed seeds.” All certified seed varieties in Nebraska are inspected in the field and tested in the lab before they can get a blue tag indicating their passing grade. Farmers growing certified seed must follow set guidelines regarding what can and cannot be grown in a field prior to planting certified seed; what types of irrigation water can or cannot be used; buffer distances of certified seed fields from other fields containing that crop type; control of weeds and treatment of diseases. Then samples of the crop must be sent into the lab for testing at harvest.
Reaping benefits of certified seed
Every year Cullan hosts a Customer Appreciation Day, where farmers who live in his area gather to discuss and learn about seed varieties and agronomic issues from industry leaders like Knox, wheat breeders, plant pathologists, entomologists and Extension agents. Several generations of Knox’s family were also certified seed producers.
SEED DAY: Farmers from the Hemingford, Neb. area gather for the 26th Annual Cullan Seed Farms Customer Appreciation Day to discuss and prepare for the upcoming wheat planting season.
“Wheat production has a challenge already, where we don’t have some of the genetic enhancement in the form of GMOs like other crops,” Cullan said. “The crops harvested from certified seed are proven to be higher yielding than ‘bin-run seed.’ Not having the services and enforcement that NCIA provides, it is obvious that poor genetic purity and quality concerns from weed infestation or germination would be detrimental to the profitability of wheat production.”
However, the benefits of certified seed and the work of NCIA helps more than just farmers. They’re an important selling point on quality assurance to customers and end users as well.
Royce Schaneman serves as the executive director for the Nebraska Wheat Board, the state checkoff entity whose mission includes domestic and international marketing. He said the work of NCIA is often highlighted when the organization brings international trade teams to visit.
“Wheat producers in both Nebraska and the United States pride themselves on offering consistent, high-quality grain,” Schaneman said. “We’re able to take these international customers, show them a seed farm, show them seed cleaning equipment, explain how the Crop Improvement and certified seed process works, and pitch that our producers are focusing on quality — all the way from the lab to the final product we harvest and ship.”
Knox wants people to know NCIA does more than certify seeds. NCIA also conducts phytosanitary inspections, assists with Identity Preserved programs, and provides educational activities to producers on production practices and quality seed benefits.
“We're not strictly certified seed,” he said. “We do quality assurance. We’ll work with any company to set up a quality plan so they can sell quality seed.”
Brauer is the Nebraska Wheat Board ag promotion coordinator. This report is part of a Nebraska Wheat Board series, “Production Partners,” that tells the stories of organizations playing a role in wheat production.
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