By Candace Krebs
The oldest and largest seed company in Oklahoma held a grand re-opening on March 9 to celebrate a new retail store, remodeled warehouse facilities and, most notable of all, 125 years under the ownership and management of the same local family.
“You have a great reputation, not only in Oklahoma but across the nation,” said Governor Mary Fallin, one of several dignitaries who made remarks to the crowd of roughly 250 people who gathered at Johnston Seed Company headquarters in Enid. “It’s remarkable to think of all the lives your products have touched and how much your family has given back to this state and to Oklahoma State University.”
Willis B. Johnston started the company prior to statehood in 1893, shortly after the Cherokee Strip Land Run. Working in the local land office, he quickly realized the settlers needed somewhere to buy seed and supplies. He went to Kansas City and brought back a rail car loaded with seed so the pioneers could plant their first crop. They agreed to pay him back twice what they borrowed at harvest, and that’s how it started.
His two sons followed him into the business, and, in 1976, it was purchased by his grandson, Lew Meibergen, who is now 86 and still comes into the office nearly every day. Lew served as Oklahoma Commissioner of Agriculture during the early 1960s and also served a term on the board of the National Grain and Feed Association.
Lew’s grandson, Joey Meibergen, is now company president and CEO, the fifth generation of the family to run the business.
Three generations of the family were on hand for the ribbon cutting and formal celebration last week, along with many of the company’s 40 employees.
At one time, the family company also operated 32 country elevators across the region. Two years ago the grain division was sold to CGB Enterprises Inc.
Johnston Seed continues to sell a variety of products through a network of 300 dealers and distributors to markets across the U.S. and overseas in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and other countries. Signature products include premier Bermuda-grasses, both seeded and sprigged varieties, some of which are used on the nation’s leading sports fields; and native grasses and wildflower mixes that are popular as forages, cover crops and for pollinator-friendly conservation plantings.
All told, the company produces seed from 35 different plant species on 20 irrigated circles (around 3,300 acres) and performs many of its own variety test trials. It produces about a dozen different cover crop mix components, such as partridge peas, purple prairie clover, purple coneflower and Maximilian sunflower, and also buys in components that don’t grow as well in the immediate area.
“What I always tell people is Lew’s a true entrepreneur,” said Ed Schovanec, who rose through the ranks to head up the seed company at one point. “He knew how to evaluate opportunities, and he was able to organize the manpower to bring them to fruition.”
One of the timely business moves he was widely heralded for was establishing a port facility along the Verdigris River in the 1980s, which proved essential to helping move grain to market more cost effectively than by truck or train. But another example Schovanec pointed to was his early interest in collecting and cultivating native grasses and wildflowers, now among the company’s top-selling products.
“He saw the opportunity that was there in a heartbeat and mobilized the company to take advantage of it,” Schovanec said.