Jim Lutz stands in front of stacked bulk seed containers in the warehouse of the McLeansboro Pioneer seed production plant in Hamilton County. The plant, which opened only about 15 years ago, has expanded greatly along with demand.
Jim Lutz stands in front of stacked bulk seed containers in the warehouse of the McLeansboro Pioneer seed production plant in Hamilton County. The plant, which opened only about 15 years ago, has expanded greatly along with demand.
DAHLGREN, Ill. — The Pioneer seed processing plant in Hamilton County was built only about 15 years ago, but already has experienced a big growth spurt.

The original facility, with 200,000 square feet of warehouse space, has grown along with agriculture in the region.

Originally built as a soybean treatment plant, it produced 700,000 units of seed the first few years. That has risen to more than 2.5 million today.

The term “unit” is referred to as a container holding 140,000 seeds, consisting of about 50 pounds, depending on the size of the seed.

“When we built this place we thought we would have capacity of 2 million,” said production manager Jim Lutz. “We’re up to 2.6 million now. We’ve made plenty of additions of equipment, warehouse and office space.”

Serving farmers in an area encompassing the southern third of the state, it is one of four soybean seed processing centers in Illinois operated by Pioneer.

About five years ago, wheat was added to the production mix. The plant processed 475,000 units of wheat last year.

Seed From 250 Growers

About 250 cooperating growers produce seed for the plant. Most of the soybeans are Group IVs, though some Group V varieties also are grown.

The production area stretches from the Mississippi River to slightly past the Indiana border and south into Kentucky.

“Part of that is by design,” Lutz said. “We don’t want it all right here. We want to spread it out so that we hopefully mitigate a weather event and not have all our eggs in one basket. Wheat is a little bit more condensed. We don’t go that far south.”

The annual cycle begins early in the year, when staff members — there are three agronomists and a field operations manager at the McLeansboro location — contract with growers for seed production. They are intimately involved with the process during the growing season and beyond.

“Throughout the summer they’ll visit the field, and right before harvest they’ll visit the field and make inspections,” Lutz said. “They make sure purity and quality standards are met, and they take field notes on performance of those varieties.”

Since the processing plant has storage capacity of only 50,000 bushels, the vast majority of contracted seeds are stored on-farm awaiting call-up. Pioneer representatives sample the beans for quality, appearance and other attributes following harvest and resample the bins every four to six weeks.

Whenever the McLeansboro plant begins running a particular variety, the grower transports the beans to the facility, where they are unloaded.

Complex Processing

The processing begins with the spraying of a fine mineral oil mist on the beans to suppress dust. The seeds then go through a “pre-cleaner,” which removes stems, pods and other trash.

The remaining beans are run through a cleaner. The ultimate goal is quality, uniform beans, to maximize planting efficiency.

“Basically, we’re sizing that seed,” Lutz said. “We’re taking the super big stuff out and the small stuff out. We’re trying to get the most even portion of that seed.”

The seed is then run through a spiral machine that sorts out flat or oblong beans. There are additional runs through gravity separators and a color sorter.

“Ideally, we want to put a nice, even, round seed in the bag” Lutz said. “We want to provide our customer a premium product.”

While the McLeansboro plant does process some non-genetically modified seed, the vast majority is Roundup Ready, LibertyLink or other GMO varieties. The plant has full seed-treatment capabilities, and most seeds are treated with fungicides or insecticides.

The emergence of modern, large-scale farming has greatly reduced the number of units packaged in paper bags.

Lutz said about 40 percent of the seed leaving the plant when it first opened was in the standard, 50-pound bags. That has fallen to about 14 percent.

Most of the remainder is packaged in hard black containers called pro boxes or in white polybags — each holding about 2,500 pounds. Some seed is delivered in loose bulk directly to the farmer.

The facility has been a boon to rural Hamilton County, employing 69 workers full time, up from only 15 when it first opened. In addition, there are about 15 seasonal employees during the main conditioning period.