Seeds of growth
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F.W. Rickard Seeds’ entrepreneurial spirit
Looking at a tiny bottle of grain-sized tobacco seed, it seems a wonder that it has the potential to produce a field of six-foot plants. Growers know it requires a season’s worth of hard work to produce a crop from that little bottle. Just as farmers put a lot of effort into nurturing a plant from seed to harvest, seed companies put a lot of effort to get seed into farmers’ hands.
F.W. Rickard Seeds is one of the companies that produces these seeds, making them available to leaf growers in the United States and around the world. Rickard Seeds produces an array of burley, dark-fired and flue-cured varieties, both self-pollinated and hybrids, and sells these varieties to transplant producers, leaf producers, dealers and leaf merchants in the United States and more than 28 other countries.
Although seed may be one of the lowest cost inputs for the tobacco crop, it plays a key role in the leaf quality and the yield that the farmer produces, says Humberto Alba, president of F.W. Rickard Seeds. “Planting a high-quality seed pays off for farmers—a higher yield per acre equals more dollars per acre, improved quality leaf equals more dollars per unit sold, and disease resistance translates to fewer dollars spent on fungicides, bactericides and agrichemicals.”
In the U.S., Rickard Seeds sells burley and dark seed directly to dealers and transplant producers. Flue-cured seed is sold to one distributor, Gold Leaf Seed Company. Gold Leaf in turn resells to a small number of distributors, who then sell to farmers and transplant growers.
Rickard also markets its tobacco seed in more than 28 countries. In the international market, Rickard sells to transplant producers or to large leaf merchants such as Universal Leaf, Alliance One, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco.
“We’re very strong in the burley and dark-fired markets and nearly as strong in flue-cured tobacco,” Alba says. “We would like to expand international burley and flue-cured markets and international markets with special emphasis on oriental tobacco. Another goal for the company is to continue to improve seed pellet performance and respond quicker to changes in the marketplace.”
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Rickard Seeds owns and operates research and laboratory facilities in Mebane, N.C., where research focuses on plant breeding and development of improved tobacco varieties. Rickard’s breeding program considers the visual and physical traits traditionally used to assess tobacco leaf quality as well as the leaf constituents required by the cigarette manufacturers’ minimum standards. The breeding program continues to develop varieties resistant to bacterial wilt, black shank, potato virus Y complex, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes and other diseases. Researchers also focus on attributes such as yield and quality, leaf number, leaf/lamina ratio, low converters, good adaptability, ease in curing and traceability.
In 2004, the University of Kentucky re-released several of its burley varieties as low-converter (LC) varieties, screened for low converters of nornicotine. Rickard, at the request of cigarette manufactures, has screened its own varieties for low converters and also begun production of LC varieties that have been released by the universities. By the year 2007, the company should be commercializing only LC varieties to leaf growers in the U.S. and abroad, says Alba. “We’re currently producing foundation and commercial seed of our own varieties that will be designated as low converter. We’re also producing the first new proprietary LC dark-fired hybrids, which should be available for sale in 2006.”
In 1999, Rickard implemented a formal quality-management system for seed production, processing and quality testing, resulting in ISO 9001:2000 certification. Rickard Seeds is the only tobacco seed company in the USA that is ISO certified. “ISO certification is an internationally recognized commitment to quality and conformity to a standard of excellence,” says Alba. “Rickard Seeds became ISO certified in its quality management system for seed production, processing and seed quality testing. Rickard wasn’t required to be ISO certified but sought to be so designated out of a desire to offer our customers the best products possible. ISO certification documents the entire production and processing for each seed lot and ensures seed produced by Rickard consistently meets specifications and delivers value to the farmer.”
Alba considers Rickard well positioned for growth, ticking off a list of company strengths: “An excellent product portfolio; a strong global presence; a well-established brand; strong plant-breeding capabilities, which make custom-designed hybrids available to customers; a strong research and development pipeline of new varieties; excellent pellet technology; ISO 9000 Certification; in-house low converter screening capability; and our link with the GenApps research group.
“Rickard Seeds will always work to enhance the tobacco growers’ confidence in us by providing them with improved genetics, uncompromising quality and continuous innovation.”
USSTC researchers discover nicotine demethylase gene
In March 2005, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company (USSTC) announced that scientists at its GenApps Inc. laboratories in Winchester, Ky., led by Drs. Mark Nielsen and Dongmei Xu, succeeded in discovering a key tobacco gene encoding nicotine de-methylase. Nicotine demethylase is the enzyme that facilitates the conversion of nicotine into nornicotine. Nornicotine is known to be the precursor to the tobacco-specific nitro-samine N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN).
“This important and fundamental discovery holds the promise for commercial production of low-nitrosamine tobacco with significantly reduced NNN levels within the next decade,” said Dr. Robert H. Lawrence Jr., executive vice president of USSTC. “This discovery is a direct result of years of USSTC efforts to reduce tobacco-specific nitrosamines to the lowest levels possible while meeting adult consumer expectations for high-quality products.”
1937—French W. Rickard founds F.W. Rickard Seeds, one of the first companies to produce and sell burley tobacco seed.
1962—Rickard Seeds becomes one of the first companies to produce tobacco hybrids.
1989—Rickard Seeds leads industry from transplant production in traditional seed beds to float systems using pelleted seed.
1991—Tobacco Seed and Plant Exportation Act repealed. Established in the 1930s, this act prohibited tobacco seed exports from the U.S. Rickard Seeds begins selling hybrid tobacco seed to leaf growers outside the U.S.
1993—Rickard Seeds begins producing seed for dark air-cured and dark fire-cured varieties.
1997—Rickard Seeds enters the flue-cured tobacco seed market by licensing two flue-cured varieties from North Carolina State University.
1997—Profigen Inc., a subsidiary of United States Smokeless Tobacco Company, purchases Rickard Seeds.
1998—Rickard Seeds purchases R.G. Seeds, giving Rickard production rights to additional flue-cured varieties.
1999—Rickard begins a quality management system for seed production, processing and testing, resulting in ISO 9001:2000 certification.
2004—Rickard Seeds partners with INCOTEC to improve pellet.
2005—Rickard Seeds begins production of proprietary foundation low converter seed (LC) and commercializes LC varieties for the first time.