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John Swanson: NSA Gold Award Honoree

Tuesday, August 28, 2018
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

       John Swanson, whose sunflower career began in 1971, is the newest recipient of the National Sunflower Association Gold Award, presented to “individuals who have contributed extraordinarily to the overall sunflower industry, either through their occupation or through the association.”  Swanson was honored during a luncheon at the 2018 NSA Summer Seminar at Arrowwood Resort near Alexandria, Minn., on June 27.
       Swanson’s involvement with sunflower is unparalleled both for its longevity and its variety.  He has grown this crop every year (except one) since 1972 on his farm near Mentor, Minn., and concurrently conducted numerous agronomic trials.  He also has been a seed company fieldman, general manager of an edible seed division, in international sales of confection sunflower products, a new product development manager, general manager of Dahlgren & Company’s planting seed division — and, prior to retiring, sunflower product manager for Croplan by Winfield, a division of Land O’Lakes.  Swanson additionally was a board member of the National Sunflower Association for 12 years, including several years as NSA secretary/treasurer.  He also has served as chairman of the Minnesota Sunflower Council since its inception in 2009.  
       Swanson’s involvement in commodity organizations likewise extends beyond sunflower.  He has served on the board of directors of the National Canola Association and has been actively involved with the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, Minnesota Corn Growers Association (as a state board director) and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.
       How did John Swanson’s 47-year connection with the sunflower industry begin?  
      After graduating from North Dakota State University in 1968 with a degree in mechanized agriculture, Swanson served in the U.S. Army. Following his discharge, he returned to earn a second bachelor’s degree (in ag education) from NDSU. That led to a vocational ag teaching position at the high school in Climax, Minn., not far from his Mentor home. 
      At that time, Swanson also conducted a night class for area farmers. Clark Dahlgren, president of Dahlgren & Company, a pioneer in U.S. confection sunflower, stopped by during one winter evening’s class. “Clark asked if I’d come in to Dahlgren the next day after classes were done — and they offered me a position,” Swanson recalls. Until that point, “the only thing I knew about sunflower was a senior report I’d written at NDSU on sunflower in Kenya!”
      Swanson was hired as a fieldman for Crookston-based Dahlgren, contracting confection acres and working with growers on what also was, for most of them, a brand new crop. The company’s goal that year was to contract 71,000 acres — “71 in 71” — in northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.
      Swanson raised his own first crop of sunflower in 1972.  “I figured if I wasn’t willing to do it myself, I wasn’t willing to tell somebody else how to do it,” he recalls. “I did a lot of experimenting on our farm over the years. Some things worked well, some didn’t.” Field days were held often at the Swanson farm, where visitors could view herbicide trials, plant population comparisons, early fungicide testing and a variety of other experiments.
      One of Swanson’s early assignments was to develop planter plates for sunflower, as well as improved combine harvest attachments.  Until then, growers were using corn plates for ’flowers, and the results were quite variable. “They were planting six pounds or more of confection seed per acre — but the distribution was terrible,” Swanson remembers. “There might be clumps of three, four or five plants; then a three- or four-foot skip.”
      Ron Hagemeister of Interstate Seed & Grain in Fargo also was working on sunflower planter plate development. “I was using a flat-drop plate, while Ron was taking a different approach,” Swanson relates. “An engineer at Lincoln Ag Products (manufacturer of plastic planter plates for several crops) asked if we could work together rather than independently.” They did, and eventually came up with the colored plate system that quickly caught on across the sunflower industry. “By the second year we had 100% ‘buy-in’ that it would be the system: the size 1, 2, 3 and 4 oil and size 10, 15 and 20 confection.”
      Full sunflower hybrids — made possible by the discovery of cytoplasmic male sterility and genes for fertility restoration — were just being developed as of the early ’70s. Dahlgren was marketing two “partial hybrids” at the time, and together they enjoyed a large market share. But they were not rust resistant, and that, coupled with the emergence of full hybrids, triggered their departure.
      Flowering across fields was very uneven prior to the appearance of hybrids, Swanson recalls, which simultaneously contributed to uneven drydown. “We tried to use bees — and not always with consistent results,” he says. “Sometimes they’d show definite increases in yield; sometimes you didn’t see anything. It depended on the variety and/or the native population of bees in the area.”
      Weed control in sunflower essentially boiled down to cultivation. When Elanco labeled Treflan on ’flowers in the ’70s, “we did some trials, and it worked great,” Swanson says. He and Dahlgren colleague Ernie Taus encouraged its use in sunflower to such a degree that nearly 100% of their contracted acres were treated with the herbicide — and Elanco recognized them with an award for their support.
      Swanson’s career moved in a new direction in 1974 when Dahlgren made him general manager of its edible sunflower division. There he oversaw confection seed sales (kernel and in-shell), birdseed sales and, as well, those of redwood products. “Redwood products” consisted of bird feeders and planter pots. At one point the company employed nearly 100 people in Crookston to build the feeders and pots. They were a natural fit for the birdseed market, and Dahlgren placed flyers inside its birdseed bags, offering discounts on feeders. 
       That position led to international sales of confection sunflower products, which naturally involved substantial foreign travel.  (Swanson estimates he has been to at least 65 countries on six continents — plus every U.S. state — across the course of his extensive sunflower career.)
      The next move came in the mid-1980s when Dahlgren asked Swanson to serve as its new-product development manager. While some ventures worked out very well, not all did. Dahlgren promoted an early line of sunflower butter, for instance — but it didn’t go far due to oxidization issues that shortened shelf life. One concept that really gained momentum, though, was the use of sunflower kernel in salad bars. It was not solely a Dahlgren project; other confection companies pushed it as well.
      Dahlgren later made Swanson general manager of its planting seed division, i.e., hybrid seed sales. That lasted until 1993, when the seed division was split up and sold. Pioneer bought the research (germplasm), while Land O’Lakes — which was looking to grow its seed business — was interested in the sales group. 
      Swanson brought along Dahlgren’s corn and soybean genetics, and Land O’Lakes hired him as corn and early soybean manager. Sunflower was quickly added to the mix, however, and he became sunflower product manager for Croplan Genetics (the seed division of Land O’Lakes). His new employer allowed Swanson to remain in Minnesota rather than move to its Iowa seed headquarters, and he immediately began by establishing corn, soybean and sunflower test plots at Mentor.
      “The first year (at Croplan), with changing products, we still had about 85% of the market share in sunflower that we’d had the year before at Dahlgren,” he recalls. “That was pretty good, considering we had different hybrids.”
      Out of the blocks, Swanson was essentially handling Croplan’s sunflower hybrid development, research, seed production, sales and marketing. “I don’t have a formal degree in breeding, and I’ve never called myself a breeder; but I’ve probably had as many hybrids in the market worldwide as many breeders — and maybe more than some,” he states. “I basically took licensed lines from different companies from which we were allowed to make crosses, and out of those crosses selected for germplasm to fulfill the market needs.” A couple of the most well-known and widely planted hybrids with which he had a primary role were Croplan 803 and Croplan 3080.
       Swanson retired from his post with Croplan in 2011.
       In his remarks to the 2018 NSA Summer Seminar audience, Swanson paid homage to the spirit of cooperation that has long existed within the sunflower industry, including among competitors.  “Sometimes we’ve had problems and have had to try to find solutions.  But you’ve always been helpful and willing to go the extra mile,” he stated to audience members.  “That’s extremely important to make things work.”
       He went on to thank his family for their support and for “keeping things going” on the farm during his many absences.  He again thanked his competitors “for being tough sometimes; competition is good because it makes us all better.”  Swanson additionally paid tribute to the USDA sunflower researchers “for listening and challenging us.”  And he thanked National Sunflower Association staff and board members for their commitment to the advancement of the industry.
         “Always look for ways you can work with others to multiply your efforts,” he concluded. “There are no dumb questions; only questions left unasked.” — Don Lilleboe
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