A Perfect Blend: Local seed venture proves everything

Tucked behind a local doggy daycare in a business park off Pflaum Road, Heritage Seed Co. has taken root. And though the wholesale distribution company just opened its doors in October, General Manager Chris Wendorf and his staff of five are well-seasoned. "Heritage Seeds is a new start up with over 200 years of experience," he said. Hence the name, Heritage.

The company distributes turf and forage seed. Turf is used for yards, sports fields, and other non-agricultural uses. Forage encompasses farm seed for pastures, hay production, silage production, and anything to feed animals.

Until last September, the staff worked together at Olds Seed Co., a Wisconsin original that started in 1888 and was bought and sold several times over the years. When it was acquired by a Pennsylvania company last year, the Olds name was put out to pasture and the staff was let go.

Wendorf, a 38-year veteran in the industry, saw an opportunity. He lined up three Pacific Northwest partners, reconnected with former co-workers, and moved ahead as an independent. "We didn't do this on a shoestring," Wendorf admitted. "We had the luxury of knowing our customers, and we weren't introducing a new product."

But once decided, it was a fast turnaround. The company first launched in office space near the airport, and seven weeks later moved to its current location. Calls to clients began immediately, and an agency was retained to help design the branding and direct mail campaign. By the first week in March, six semi-trailers stocked with seed encircled the building. "We filled up the warehouse in less than two weeks. Now it's being replenished on a weekly basis," Wendorf said.

The 19,000-sq.-ft. warehouse is filled with pallets of 20- and 50-pound bags of seed received from Oregon and Washington, which Wendorf describes as the hub of the world's seed supply. The company packages them into smaller two– and five–pound bags, depending on customer specifications.

"Very little seed is produced in Wisconsin for seed use," Wendorf explained. Of 172 different varieties of Kentucky bluegrass for lawns, for example, none is grown in the state. By blending seeds locally, based on the individual attributes of each, Heritage Seed creates products specifically designed for clients' needs – such as a grass that thrives in shade, high-traffic areas, or full sun. Currently, the company has 12 different turf mixtures or blends and 15 different blends of forage product.

Wendorf said orders vary from a single 50-pound bag to a 20,000-pound truckload.

Heritage Seed Co. markets its turf product to retailers, hardware stores, garden stores, and home improvement stores. The company sells directly to landscape contractors, sod producers, park and rec departments, schools, and municipalities. Forage seed is sold to storefront dealers, like farm stores or cooperatives.

Privately funded by a silent investor and seed company owner from Oregon who has pumped $500,000 into the start up since October, Heritage Seed is a separate S-corporation with its own financials, and the plan is for the company to break even in two years.

Wendorf, the local "front guy," is thrilled to be an independent in an industry he says still thrives on old-fashioned, customer-oriented values. "I buy millions of dollars of seed on a verbal handshake over the phone."

 

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