Pioneer brand hybrid corn flows into bags at the Princeton Production Plant as employees monitor the operation, which is mostly hands free once the process starts. For more than 75 years, this facility has been handling and processing seeds for the company based in Des Moines, Iowa. With it’s proximity to Chicago, a lot of Pioneer brand seed is packaged for shipment to international markets from the Princeton, Ill., facility.
Pioneer brand hybrid corn flows into bags at the Princeton Production Plant as employees monitor the operation, which is mostly hands free once the process starts. For more than 75 years, this facility has been handling and processing seeds for the company based in Des Moines, Iowa. With it’s proximity to Chicago, a lot of Pioneer brand seed is packaged for shipment to international markets from the Princeton, Ill., facility.
PRINCETON, Ill. — As the complexity of hybrids and varieties continues to increase to meet the specific needs of farmers, the number of units of seed moving through the DuPont Pioneer Princeton Production Plant also has increased.

“We are a bit unique because we service several territories in northern Illinois,” explained Thelma Holmbeck, production location manager at the plant. “And with our proximity to Chicago, we do a lot of treating and packaging seed for international markets.”

The Princeton plant opened in 1937, when the average corn yield was about 30 bushels per acre.

“We are one of the larger production facilities for DuPont Pioneer with more than 30,000 seed-growing acres,” Holmbeck said. “And a high percentage of those acres are under irrigation.”

“Those production fields are located in seven counties,” added Rory White, F1 field operations manager at the DuPont Pioneer facility.

Holmbeck started working at the Princeton plant as an agronomist trainee after completing an agronomy degree at the University of Illinois.

“I grew up on a hog and dairy farm near Mendota,” said Holmbeck, who soon will mark 34 years at this facility. “The number of employees has increased from 30 to 65, and a big reason for that is the need for more brain and hand power to handle the complexity of our production acres.”

Seasonal Demand

During harvest operations, Holmbeck said, seasonal demand for employees increases to 120.

“During a typical day when we’re harvesting, there will be 100 trucks including both inbound with corn and outbound with the silage and cobs,” she added.

The facility includes refrigerated storage to maintain seed germination.

“Seed doesn’t like high heat and humidity — that will shorten the shelf life,” Holmbeck said.

Seed is either put into bags or a Pro Box.

“We are approaching over half of our beans going into the bulk containers,” Holmbeck noted.

The standard size of a seed bag is 30 inches long with a sewn bottom.

“We are approaching 20 different sizes of bags because we send seed to so many different countries,” Holmbeck said. “Typically, we put 50 bags on a skid, but we can put more on the pallets for container shipments to other countries.”

Most palletizers are fully automated. However at the Princeton plant, the palletizer is semi-automated because the plant fills different-sized bags.

Detasslers Hired

“We hire from 2,000 to 3,000 detasslers, and we reach out to 10 or 11 counties to get good labor,” said White, who initially started with DuPont Pioneer through a college internship.

After graduating from Western Illinois University with a degree in agronomy, he started as a production technician in 2001.

As the field operations manager, White works with four agronomists, and he interacts with growers from the time the seed ground is contracted through harvest.

“We have some third-generation growers,” Holmbeck said.

“One of the challenges in the detasseling area is the wide range of philosophies of different states on the minimum age for workers,” White noted. “In Illinois, the minimum is 12 years old, and it is 14 in Iowa, so we already went to 13 years old in Illinois and we have a plan in place to increase that minimum age for our workers.”

“We do a lot of mechanical detasseling, which reduces the workload a bunch,” Holmbeck added. “But with our quality specs, it takes human hands and eyes to determine color and to see through leaves to find the tassels.”

The target to begin planting production fields is from late April to the beginning of May.

“The soil has to be warm enough to achieve a good established stand,” Holmbeck said.

“If we start planting in late April, then detasseling should start around July 4,” White said. “Detasseling takes from three to four weeks.”

“Last year, detasseling was long,” Holmbeck added. “The maturity range of hybrids also affects the detasseling period.”

The harvest period typically begins around Labor Day and encompasses about six weeks for the Princeton facility.

“Our goal is to complete harvest before we get a freeze,” Holmbeck said. “But one year, harvest lasted over 50 days.”

Changing Technology

Holmbeck expects the level of technology in the seed business to continue to increase.

“It’s amazing, we still blow air through seeds to dry them,” she said. “But I expect the automation technology and the safety equipment to continue to advance.”

The use of drones in the agricultural industry also has become a hot topic.

“There are lots of applications for drones, like locating field issues, locating personnel and even locating equipment because we have so many different pieces of equipment that are moved around to farms,” Holmbeck said.

Although the use of drones will depend on the regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration, White said he thinks they would be helpful for targeted scouting.

“Then we could spend less time looking for disease on foot,” Holmbeck added. “It is amazing what you can see in fields with imagery because you don’t have to look at the good stuff. But you can see things like compaction, and then you can target remedies for that area.”

Employees at the DuPont Pioneer plant are encouraged to get involved with community activities such as working with 4-H and FFA programs.

“We support local festivals like the Homestead Festival and Beef Days,” Holmbeck said. “Through our corporate giving, we help support local fire departments, so they can purchase new equipment.

“A week ago, the Princeton Fire Department was here to practice extractions from a flowing grain situation,” she said. “That’s important because suffocation can happen so fast.”

“DuPont is a leader in safety,” White stressed. “We are committed to zero safety incidents.”