Seed Savior

Blond and blue-eyed, Marvin Redenius reaches out to shake hands.
Wearing a gray T-shirt with blue jeans tucked into the tops of
brown, square-topped work boots, he looks every bit the young
farmer, not the head of a multi-million-dollar farm supply network.
He often dresses that way for work, although he’s grubbier today
than normal; he’s been checking on the house he and his wife are
having built next to the business here in Belmond, a small town in
north central Iowa.

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.

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