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Seeds of change

Roger Wippler retires after 34 years with the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association.

Kevin Schulz

January 30, 2024

4 Min Read
 Pictured from left: Roger Wippler, Roger and Phyllis Schwenzfeier
RECOGNIZED ROGERS: Roger Wippler (left) chats with Roger and Phyllis Schwenzfeier after the awards presentation during the recent annual meeting of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. Wippler received the organization’s Achievement in Crop Improvement Award, while Roger Schwenzfeier and his brother Merle were among the recipients of the Premier Seed Grower Award. Kevin Schulz

America’s seed industry has changed a lot over the decades, and since 1989, Roger Wippler has had a front-row seat to those developments as manager of the Foundation Seed Program of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association.

Wippler retired in November, but he was recently awarded the Achievement in Crop Improvement Award during the MCIA annual meeting. The award is sponsored by The Farmer magazine.

“The advent of biotechnology certainly had a big impact on who we served,” Wippler told those at the meeting. “When Roundup Ready soybeans came to the marketplace, they were not available to the public universities for distribution through traditional certification, so MCIA members who wanted to utilize that genetic technology had to go to the private companies and get that material, produce it and distribute it under license agreements.”

The genetically modified crop movement saw the use of public soybean varieties decline, but Wippler said that opened opportunities in the Minnesota soybean breeding program, “putting a greater emphasis on specialty food-type soybeans. So, we started working with companies that grew food-grade soybeans. They were looking for non-GMO varieties because their customers required it. This has been an important part of the program.”

The number of seed species that Wippler worked with over the years is vast, though that has changed as Minnesota agriculture has evolved. During the recent MCIA annual meeting, Wippler presented his perspective on the past, present and future of the organization.

“It certainly has changed. As I was preparing for the meeting and looking back, a lot of the soybeans that were grown were from public universities and were grown by small seed producers and being distributed through local companies, area co-ops, seed houses,” he said. “When I look back, in 1989 there were over 900 applicants for field inspections that would cover 18 to 20 different crop types — everything from soybeans, corn, sunflowers, wheat, all the small grains, and throw in a few other crops like buckwheat and Kentucky bluegrass. So, the numbers have gone down in that regard, as private industry has taken on a larger and larger role in providing seed.”

Wippler acknowledged that the number of farms in Minnesota has also gone down over the years.

Small-grains head scab also led to a change in Minnesota cropping plans, as farmers who traditionally grew small grains switched to corn and soybeans.

“Back in ’89, we had close to 4.5 million acres of wheat, barley and oats,” he said, “and now in Minnesota, if we get to 1.5 [million], that might be stretching it. … The scab epidemic affected wheat and barley in ’93. Wheat rebounded, but barley never really did come back. Producers couldn’t get malting-quality price, and selling feed-grade barley didn’t make economic sense. So, after so many years of being rejected, they said, ‘Well, we’re just going to quit growing barley.’”

Wippler traveled the state visiting the foundation seed growers to see how the crops were performing in every corner of Minnesota, and he witnessed the cropping changes.

“When I first started, going to northwestern Minnesota and the Red River Valley, soybeans were relatively new, and beyond Moorhead, a cornfield was a rare sight. … Now, corn and soybeans are grown north to the Canadian border and west into North Dakota and western Canada,” he said.

Promotion satisfaction

While Wippler takes great pride in his work in the release of seed varieties over the years, he also is proud of the promotion of those releases.

“There was a time when a new variety would get released, and I talked to growers and asked, ‘How’s it going?’” Wippler said. “They’d say the variety did really well, but nobody knows about it.” To help get the word out, Wippler worked with the staff at the University of Minnesota Experiment Station to develop an informational campaign, “so we moved the timing of the press release announcing the new varieties from February to June so that coincided with field days, when people were out looking at plots.”

As with most people when they retire after a lengthy tenure, Wippler reflects on the people with whom he crossed paths, saying he may still visit growers throughout the season, but now more on a personal level. He relishes the collaboration over the years with growers, but also with U-MN plant breeding teams with whom he developed close relationships.

Though he was able to travel both domestically and internationally through his MCIA affiliation, he looks forward to traveling more leisurely with his wife, Cindy, who also worked at MCIA.

Seeds will not be left behind in Wippler’s retirement, as he hopes to volunteer more as a U-MN Master Gardener while also tending the “big garden” at his family’s hobby farm near Randall in Morrison County, Minn.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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