Farm boy turned warrior, Marvin Redenius battles a behemoth
Feeling his way, Redenius sits at the head of a conference table and checks for the time, flipping open the crystal of his watch and lightly touching the small bumps on its face with his right index finger. 'I'm blind, you know. That's why I have this watch,' he says.
Redenius, 35, is an unlikely warrior in a legal battle against a global agribusiness behemoth--Des Moinesñbased Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.--that could help determine the future of the agricultural seed industry, a multi-billion-dollar business with extensive research, production, and marketing operations in the Midwest. A farm boy and high school graduate, he started his company nine years ago with $1,500 and a business partner, operating out of a small room in his home in Clarion, a county seat about 20 miles from here.
His company, Farm Advantage Inc., uses a network of more than 100 independent contractors to sell crop seed and farm chemicals at a discount to farmers in the Upper Midwest. Redenius claims it is one of the fastest growing such companies in the region, with annual sales that run into eight figures, though he won't specify an amount.
Early last year, about a week before the business moved to a new 21,000-square-foot headquarters, a U.S. marshal served legal papers notifying Redenius that he was being sued by Pioneer for patent infringement.
His misstep? Selling 600 bags of Pioneer seed corn, which he bought from another seed dealer, without Pioneer's permission. The company sought damages and a halt to the sales.
Redenius was incredulous. 'Out of the people they could have gone after, and they came after me,' he says. 'Aw, get real. This is ridiculous.'
He claims Farm Advantage and its affiliates had been selling Pioneer seed for years with the seed company's knowledge. But in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Sioux City early last year, Pioneer claimed the sales were unauthorized. Also named as defendants were several Farm Advantage sales representatives.
The case is part of a legal battle pitting patent-pursuing multinational corporations against one another and against mom-and-pop companies like Farm Advantage. For decades, seed companies have received intellectual property rights protection from state and federal laws, principally the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970. In recent years, however, the seed companies have been seeking--and getting--patents for both their plant genetic material and for the technology and novel processes employed to develop seed products. The shift has occurred as merger mania has swept over the seed industry, with chemical and pharmaceutical giants like DuPont and Monsanto spending billions of dollars to acquire seed companies.
Both trends--the patenting and the high-stakes investments--have prompted a flurry of lawsuits among the major players. Early on, industry analysts said resolution of the litigation might turn on a few key cases in which the courts would resolve questions central to the increasingly biotech-based seed business. The Farm AdvantageñPioneer dispute, a David-and-Goliath story, may be one such case.
A federal district judge refused last year to dismiss the case, but sent the question of patentability of plant matter to a federal appellate court with expertise in patent law. The two sides made oral arguments in June, with a decision due this fall. No matter how the appellate court rules, however, some expect the matter to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Redenius is unfazed. He credits his farm upbringing and Christian background with teaching him to stick up for what's right, and he says he is used to what he calls the 'good-ol'-boy' ag supply business. 'It's not intimidating at all, because what's right is right,' he says. 'I'm not going to take anything from anybody who says I did something wrong when I did absolutely nothing wrong.'
In his view, seed companies should not be able to patent or restrict access to their genetic products. Redenius believes this exclusivity prevents the kind of innovation that has made the U.S. agricultural seed industry a global powerhouse. In the nonpatented past, farmers and plant breeders shared genetic material freely to devise new seed products. But now, they must procure licenses for that access--and pay dearly for it.
Redenius is no greennik. A fiscal and political conservative, he sees nothing wrong with using synthetic fertilizers and farm chemicals, and he has no problem with genetic engineering, the focus of a raging battle that pits consumer advocates, environmentalists, and others opposed to high-tech crops against the industry that is developing them. His interest is in saving farmers money--while making a good buck himself--and in improving the products they use to produce much of the world's corn and soybeans. 'If it's a good product and it benefits the American farmer, and it's good for the American people, I'm all for it,' he says. 'If it can be a win-win situation, hey, I'm for it all the way. You bet.'
But he thinks the consolidation occurring among the nation's largest agribusinesses threatens to scuttle all that--a view shared by many in both the farm and university research communities. And he does not view the new technology being employed on U.S. farms as a panacea for farmers' woes in years of low commodity prices like this one; in fact, he and his farmer-clients know that not all of the newfangled seed products perform impeccably. Some, for instance, have been blamed for reduced yields.
Even so, the crops have been widely adopted by U.S. farmers. Redenius worries that companies will get farmers hooked on the products, then raise prices sharply. He believes the case against Farm Advantage, provided it goes his way, may help prevent that.
Everything has a reason, he says. It's all part of God's plan--losing his eyesight, meeting his wife, getting a business partner, starting Farm Advantage. 'It's very humbling. It brings me to my knees,' he says.
He was ornery as a kid, he admits; his blindness was caused by drinking wood alcohol mistaken for whiskey during his senior year in high school--on a Sunday evening, when he was supposed to be in church. He nearly died, he and his wife, Chris, recall, because his doctors didn't know until the last minute what was causing his systems to shut down.
'Just growing up on a farm, you have to be pretty tough,' he says. Competitors have called to cheer him on, and he has received encouragement from around the world.
'This is really going to be a big, big salvation for the American farmer if--not if, but when--we win this thing,' he says.