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We Have Roots! History of Seed

History of Wild Bird Seed

By Carolyn Allen

Feeding the birds is truly a grassroots-driven part of Western culture. While this article is focusing on the seed portion of the industry, it must be mentioned that feeding nectar, suet and various nuts, fruits and baked goods were explored alongside the birth of the seed industry.

Nature lovers and book authors promoted feeding birds as early as 1845, when Henry David Thoreau offered corn and bread crumbs to the birds at his Walden Pond paradise. In the 1890s, Mrs. E. B. Davenport fed birds year-round using suet, sunflowers, finely cracked corn, hemp, buckwheat, nutmeats, and cornbread in her own handmade feeders. Those encouraging words and stories in the media were the grassroot beginnings of today's wild bird feeding industry.

From Field to Bird...

Just One Pathway of Many

A Grower in Nebraska rough-cleans the seed at the elevator and sells to a Broker (who doesn't take possession) who sells the seeds to a South Dakota Processor who cleans it to 98% purity and packs it in unlabeled 50# bags. Then it is sent to a Manufacturer in Pennsylvania for warehousing, mixing and packaging in branded 5, 10 or 20# retail packaging. A Distributor in Georgia orders it by the truck or railcar and ships it to Retailers up to a 1,000 miles away. And Retailers sell it to neighborhood Hobbyists...who feed it to Birds that might have traveled a thousand miles...or a mile to dine at their feeders.

"The backyard winter soup kitchen has become a year-round smorgasbord for the birds -- and new entrees are no doubt on their way," Carroll Henderson. For a delightful journey back into the early days of feeding birds, check out Henderson's article, "Century of Bird Feeding" in the December 1999 issue of Birder's World.

In the 1860s, the Engler family's great grandfather started Knauf & Tesch (now Kaytee). They began pioneering the industry in the feed business, operating a general store for local dairy farmers. William Knauf (grandfather) fed racing pigeons, and sometimes personal interests frequently spill over into business. He noticed pigeons in the community around him and he started thinking about how to feed these wild birds.

Bill Engler, Jr. is now Mayor of Chilton, WI, and he shared some of the early company growth history, "In the 1940s, Simon Wagner of Wagner Bros. Feed Corp. and Bill Engler, Sr. of Knauf & Tesch, (which later became Kaytee) met in New York City and explored how to create a wild bird feeding market. It was a revolutionary thought that the small A&P neighborhood grocery stores would sell food for birds. They just weren't the big stores of today."

Both of these pioneers were already engaged in selling seed for pets and agriculture. Selling seed for backyard bird feeding was a new marketing twist in search of a market. These two pioneers collaborated in creating the packaging and mixing processes needed to market food for wild birds.

"Wagner had the capital to expand faster, first and more aggressively into the grocery stores, and they developed the exposure and volume to become the leader of this new market niche," recalled Engler.

At first they packaged 25# bags for consumers to feed to outdoor birds. "It was an easy transition because we already had some of the ingredients for our earlier products," reminisced Bill Wagner, a lifelong participant in one of our industry's earliest family businesses.

Where visionary marketing begins…an industry can sprout. And in this case, the new industry took off at a rapid pace. What caused the market expansion? "With the growth of the suburbs after "THE war" people became more interested in birds, gardening and environmental issues. "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring book about DDT upsetting the whole ecosystem chain also raised the awareness of a lot of people," Wagner explained.

Who makes up this grassroots market today? A marketing study in the late 90s conducted by Kaytee found that

  • 30% of households fed birds in the past 6 months and of these households:
    -- 71% feed year round
    -- 67% have two or more feeders.
  • The average bird feeder has fed birds for more than 12 years. And most have grown up feeding birds -- the interest carries over when adults establish their own home.

And that's why Kaytee has established such a strong presence with their Education Department and the Avian Foundation. Myra Peffer conducts bird conservation programs and the Chilton facility has developed 33 exhibits on pet and wild birds in the environment. This foundation will help retailers with personalized school programs to impact local environments.

A Study in Growth

Industry Tonnage Leader: Pennington

Founded in 1948 by Brooks Pennington Sr. with the purchase of a small, rural retail seed and feed store in Madison, Georgia, Pennington today is a diversified company with more than 800 employees. Headquartered in Madison, GA where it all began more than 50 years ago, and with 14 divisions, 2 wholly-owned subsidiaries and 5 affiliate corporations, Pennington offers more than 10,000 lawn, garden and turf care products and services to more than 20,000 active accounts. Purchased in 1998 by Central Garden & Pet (headquartered in Lafayette, CA,) the corporation that also owns related birding companies: Kaytee and Cedar Works, reported 2000 revenues of more than $1.3 billion.

Pennington’s Penn Pak facilities in Madison, GA; Greenfield, MO; and Sidney, NE are modern wild bird feed packaging facilities in the world set up to process grain the moment it is received by truck or rail. Batching and final seed blending is precision handled by a computerized system. These plants combine to make Pennington the world’s largest manufacturer of wild bird seed, with millions of pounds produced each day. Contact: 800-285-SEED for the closest Pennington distribution center.

Wagner's growth is similar to other long term companies in this industry. It started as an agricultural grain company with a retail store in a small town. It then started looking for other markets, and saw that birds eat nearly the same thing as poultry and cattle

Bill Wagner, current CEO of Wagner's, told how their family business started in Brooklyn, NY and expanded when they added packaging birdseed. They then bought plants in North Dakota, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois to be close to the major crop producing areas. Each plant supplies a nearby section of the country. "Freight is a very important part of the business -- you have to pack in the producing areas," he points out.

Bill started in the family business as a kid, and went full time when he graduated from college in 1959. He has worked in importing and exporting seeds, marketing, administration, finance, advertising -- all phases of Wagner's operations. His perspective is highly respected by people in other companies, too, because of his depth and breadth of experience and integrity in the industry. He is now CEO of Wagner's, and manages subsidiary packaging plants in four states.

"Who needs bird seeds?"

Wagner started packaging mixes in 5# bags in the late 50s. The first wild bird food brand was Winter Life and was sold in garden and pet stores. "People felt sorry for the birds in winter -- 90% was sold during colder months. But in the 60s we introduced the Four Season brand in grocery stores. That was another first for the industry. Grocery stores offered wide exposure and ease of finding the seed. That really increased sales. Availability to the grocery shopper eliminated having to make a special trip to get seed for the birds."

Supermarkets were smaller in those days, and adding bird seed was a real challenge. "Who needs bird seeds?" grocers asked. "Most pet items start out this way. Cat litter faced that same initial attitude -- people were used to ripping up newspapers or using sand. And dog food -- canned food was introduced in the 30s and faced that same sales resistance. Dogs naturally eat table scraps -- who needs special dog food! But now pets have become part of the family."

Seed Industry Participants

Growers Field production and harvesting of the seeds and grains
Elevator Storage and sales companies who gather harvests from the Growers
Processor Cleaning to 98-99% purity, as well as drying services, and some seed treatments to prevent fungus, insects, etc.
Manufacturer (Also called Packer or Packager) Quality control, mix, additives and packaging for the consumer markets
Distributors Bulk purchasing with smaller order distribution to retailers
Retailers Mass market discounters, home product big box chains, grocery stores, feed stores, garden centers, pet stores, wild bird stores, and related retail stores provide service and sales to consumers
Feeders Home and garden enthusiasts who feed the birds


Specialty stores survive in the niche
of devoted bird hobbyists.

Trends continue to evolve. The grocers claimed 70-80% of the bird seed market in the early days. Now the mass merchandisers and big box stores corner 65% of the market. The major shift has happened in the last ten years.

Kaytee Products of Chilton, WI, focuses on specialty mixes for specific species, as well as straight grain products. They have pet bird, wild bird and small animal lines of basic and gourmet foods. Kaytee manufactures research-tested foods that have been researched at its own Avian Research Center. The company also promotes avian education, conservation and research through the Kaytee Avian Foundation a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving birds and their habitats. "It is the only foundation of its kind in the industry," reported Bill Engler, Jr., one of the education effort's founders. "Specialty stores survive in the specialist niche of devoted bird hobbyists. These enthusiasts want someone to talk with and they want service. But the tonnage is moved through the mass merchants," Wagner pointed out.

Another trend identified by Wagner is quality improvements. "In the early days bird seed was low end. But as volume increased and stores gave it more space, they started handling both low- and high-quality products."

Quality Guidelines

"The Minnesota Department of Agriculture was entrusted with carrying out inspection programs for commercial seed and reported that, even into the 1980s, up to 40 percent of the birdseed they inspected failed to meet agricultural standards because it contained noxious weeds and other impurities," reports Carroll Henderson in his Birder's World article.

Quality is an ongoing discussion topic in the industry. The Wild Bird Feeding Institute, which began in 1981, has recently launched a series of task forces to investigate industry issues that will support their mission of "being the industry voice" to develop a better bird feeding environment for both the industry and the consumer. Initiatives just being launched include:

  1. Develop a baseline of standards for products on the shelf
  2. Gather statistics of the industry
  3. Improve networking among industry members to solve problems
  4. Provide ongoing communications as an industry association

Wayne Lindberg, WBFI President also pointed out that the name of the organization has just changed to better reflect the mission. The Wild Bird Feeding Industry Association will help keep the focus on bird feeding, and industry association functions. WBFI was started to deal with seed quality and to smooth out government policies that differed state by state. "We worked to develop consistency in expectations in government and consumers, plus gather the knowledge to grow the industry as a group." Government actions such as taxes and control of noxious weeds have a major impact on industry members and processes.

"It is difficult to gather reliable information in an industry this fragmented. We have a wide range of companies who are helping create and distribute birding products -- from cottage-based to massive corporations," Lindberg summarized. But task forces are now working in the four key areas, and he promises to keep us updated with progress reports.

"All members are welcome to participate WBFI's open meetings in November and March," Lindberg encourages members to enter the debates that will make this industry a stronger force in providing successful bird feeding experiences for the buying public.

"We hope to undertake relevant research and encourage conservation projects that will impact our communities," says Lindberg. One such conservation project he holds up as a model is the conservation of buffer zones along rivers to protect surface waters from agricultural and urban pollutants.

Bird Seed Facts:

  • The price of raw product starts at about 14 cents a pound at the grower and sells for $1 on the shelf.
  • Companies mix and match the functions they provide in this processing, packaging and distribution chain of production.
  • Harvest is in late fall, (SEP-OCT) with storage in bulk facilities for up to 11 months. Most seed is packaged and delivered within one week of being cleaned and shipped from the Processor to a Manufacturer.
  • Quality is highly dependent on low moisture content of the raw seeds/grains coming out of the field. Storage will then hold that quality or allow it to lose quality through insect infestations, fungus or rancidity.
  • Conditions in bulk storage are not temperature controlled, and are sometimes fumigated to reduce fungus and insect damage. Seeds with high oil and moisture content (i.e. sunflowers) require more storage treatment than low moisture crops (i.e. millet).
  • Weather during harvest has a major impact on moisture and insect levels. Some crops are winnowed and allowed to dry on the ground, and some are harvested without touching the ground. Depending on weather and seed species, some need to be dried before storage, some are naturally low in moisture content. Some are high in oil and thus, attract insects and are subject to rancidity.


Feature story by Carolyn Allen for the trade magazine, Birding Business

For more articles about the Nature Business

Articles for Backyard Nature Trade Publications
Here today...gone tomorrow?
The Secret of Native Abundance
We Have Roots! History of Seed
Optics: High-end Selection Brings High-end Results
Up To Their Eyeballs In Fun!
It's All About The Heart Of A Family
Bogus Trees for Urban Success
Packaging is Plumage
Software Migration Leads the Way
Software for Nature Retail Stores
Birds in Your Aquatic Sanctuary