Thanksgiving generates warm memories. It is a time for celebrating our heritage, our families, and those who have made us strong, and helped us become all we are. There is a little known story of a family right here in Wisconsin that is humbly celebrating this Thanksgiving. They are celebrating 100 years of a family legacy that has had an immeasurable and vital impact on Wisconsin farmers and their families, and on agriculture’s ability to help feed the world. And they are celebrating it with a man who for the past 50 years has helped guide its sustained success.
John Spangler doesn’t come across as a bold business magnate. He’s regularly described as humble, honest, and rather quiet, but direct. But John has a passion for the seed business, and when it comes to seed, John is focused on results, driven by science and precision, and keenly dedicated to accuracy and acuity. It is his commitment to his family legacy of developing and producing exceptional seed products for Wisconsin growers that has fueled the company’s success for the last century.
Spangler Seed Company, Jefferson, Wisconsin got its start in 1913 when John’s dad and uncle were truly forerunners in the art and science of commercial seed production – with varieties like Golden Glow, Silver King, and Northwestern Dent (red). Woodrow Wilson was president. Francis E. McGovern was governor, and Wisconsin had only been a state for 65 years. But these innovative sons of German immigrants had an idea, and the tenacity to see it through. They established this company and developed systems and equipment to manage, sort and carefully handle specific seed products for customers. The established the business, and with it, a solid reputation for high quality and accuracy.
“It must have been a daunting task,” said John Spangler. “But, they told the stories of being focused on making this business grow.” And they were not alone. Spangler notes that Wisconsin has a rich history of dedicated seed professionals. “University of Wisconsin had a lot to do with the early success of these many seed companies. The Wisconsin Experiment Station was very cutting-edge for its time. Also, the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association laid a strong foundation for family farms to start with some sort of seed business.”
Commercial seed production advanced thanks to the contributions of many, Spangler said. As the 1930’s arrived, the science of hybridization was introduced and the Spangler family was ready to embrace the changes that would fuel our nation’s ability to be a world leader in corn production. “This was in a time when hybridization was a very new field of study. Not only were they working in developing a new science, they were marketing a net new product to their customers, asking them to pay for seed rather than saving seed from the previous fall’s crop to plant in the spring.”
Once again, planning, precision and hard work spurred their growth and sustained the company and customers alike. Spangler Seed Company grew and with a University of Wisconsin agronomy degree in hand, and after 10 months active duty in the military, John came home to go to work full time in the seed business.
“When I became involved in the 1961, we started getting into private varieties, beyond the Wisconsin Certified varieties, and we progressed from there,” he said. Their progress meant reaching out beyond the immediate Jefferson area. “Our reach soon advanced to having customers and dealers across a 100 mile radius, which at that time, was a pretty big spread for a family operation. We worked directly with our customers. It meant a great deal of working together, learning together and educating. Our customers were loyal; many from small farms of say 80-150 acres and dairies of say 30-50 cows. We helped them find hybrids that performed well in their management systems and on those farms. Then, they had a good, reliable, consistent crop to sell, feed their stock and their families, send their kids to school or make improvements on the farm. Their successful crops helped sustain them and their families and in turn, our seed company was able to continue to grow and invest in the next hybrid.”
Another change came when Spangler Seed introduced soybean seed. “Many of these producers had never even seen a soybean. Soybeans were something new, and we were fortunate enough to help introduce them to a new crop in the rotation.” And as the years progressed, and the company has grown, now, beyond hybrid corn seed for grain and silage, the company offers soybean varieties, and hybrid and conventional alfalfa seed.
Spangler noted that at one time, there were many competitor seed companies across the state. “Prominent names included the Jacques family, Blaney, Trelay, and Jungs, all were good colleagues and contributors to our state’s seed tradition.” At one point, during the 1940’s, Spangler said there were some 250 seed corn companies in Wisconsin alone. Today, there are far fewer locally owned companies. “We’ve had many Wisconsin seed companies celebrating 100 years, but they are getting fewer and farther between.”
“We have grown to meet the need of our customers. Their farms have changed – in size, with the management systems used, equipment, etc. Wisconsin is a varied state. For example, corn maturities range from 80-day to 110 day hybrids. Our reach now extends to serve our customers across the entire state and through all those options.” He added, “Many changes in the seed industry itself have posed some significant hurdles along the way. Meantime, seed traits and technologies have come into play, patents, licensing, etc. all add layers of challenge to producing seed.”
From a business standpoint, Spangler says they are just like their farmer customers, responding to changes in the weather, markets, etc. In 2007, the company joined AgVenture, Inc., the nation’s largest network of independently owned and operated regional seed companies. Spangler says, “We have two things going for us – we have the strength of AgVenture on the retailing side and we are still a wholesale production company – independently owned and operated. “
For over a half a century, John Spangler has offered leadership and guidance to a family business dedicated to producing high quality seed products for Wisconsin. “We’ve seen relationships change through the generations of customers; watching them grow, being there with the right seed products on time, of the best quality, and all the components that go into making them successful and maintaining the trust. As I look back, it’s still about the integrity of product and people that we can provide.”
How many lives has the Spangler family touched? How many bushels have been produced and sold thanks to their ingenuity and innovation spanning a century of Wisconsin history? John Spangler answers, “That’s truly daunting to consider. It would be a large number. Looking back this Thanksgiving, I’m just thankful – it is a legacy – a strong tradition of producing and selling seed to Wisconsin farmers. I am thankful to my family members past and present, including my wife, Elizabeth, my son Jeff who is now VP of Spangler seed and to our other family members including my son Steven of Eldorado Hills, California, Rick in Raleigh North Carolina and daughter Kristen who passed away from breast cancer four years ago. They each have contributed to keeping this business vibrant.”
Ever considerate, John Spangler concludes, “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to our customers and to our industry, with a wish to continue for the next generations to come.”