In its first year of business in 2008, Green Cover Seed in Bladen sold seed for 800 acres of farm ground. As of last year, the company sold enough seed to cover the state of Rhode Island – 1 million acres.
The company has grown rapidly due to its network of connections, emphasis on education, a willingness to take on risk and the leadership of its visionary founders, brothers Keith and Brian Berns.
In 2006, farmers Keith and Brian Berns attended the annual No-Till on the Plains conference where they learned about the advantages of cover crops, including how cover crops planted after harvest protect the soil from erosion, add nutrients to the ground and reduce the need for chemicals. Ultimately, the brothers learned, cover crops feed the soil to produce more nutritious foods.
Keith and Brian had to order their cover crop seed from out-of-state companies since they were unable to find seed locally. They found success with the new practice. It reduced their input costs and helped them create healthier soil conditions. Soon, neighboring farmers started asking about where to order the seed. By 2008, the Berns brothers decided to start a cover-crop business.
Last year, Green Cover Seed (based in tiny Bladen, Nebraska) shipped more than 27,000 million pounds of seed to all 50 states and 13 counties. Sales totaled more than $16 million.
Each seed order is customized with a mix of seeds to best suit each farmer’s field, a practice that makes Green Cover Seeds unique from other cover crop seed companies. Their customers are mostly farmers and ranchers, but they do sell seed to back-yard farmers and gardeners, too. In fact, that is one of the company’s fastest-growing segments.
Noah Young, marketing and sales manager for Green Cover Seed, said no one seed mix works best for everyone’s operation so they work with each customer to find the best solution. Cereal rye might be great to plant after corn harvest for some farmers but not for others based on their planting rotations and crops.
Young described the company’s founders as visionary. Their mission is to “help farmers and ranchers regenerate God’s creation for future generations.”
“The next generation is a huge passion for us,” Young said. “We want to hand down our farms and soils in better condition than when we started.”
Young said Keith and Brian’s children are all involved in Green Cover Seeds at some level, with some working directly for the company and others working as independent contractors. Keith’s son is a web developer, and he helped design the company’s free SmartMix calculator that helps determine the best custom cover crop mix for each customer’s field.
Green Cover Seed employs more than 40 people, depending on the season, at its headquarters in Bladen, NE, making it one of the largest employers in the town of 300.
“We are passionate about our community,” Young said. “We want to be sure small towns don’t go away.”
Recruiting employees to work in such a small town has never been a problem for Green Cover Seed because of its excellent reputation as a family-friendly company. Benefits such as flexible time off for family events and monthly family fun, such a food truck nights or family nights at a hockey game, create a fun and welcoming workplace.
“Culture is a huge reason why people show up here.” Young said.
The company also employs several sales representatives who live in other Midwest states.
Emphasis on Education
Part of the reason for Green Cover Seed’s success is that the company emphasizes education. Young said he spends 15 percent of his marketing budget on creating and printing 40,000 copies of a 76-page free resource guide.
“These are the businesses we love working with,” said Jessie Harris, The Director of Marketing and Business Development at GROW Nebraska®, “the ones that are creating a huge economic impact that are seeking to make Nebraska better and stronger.”
“We hear so many great things about that resource because it’s an education guide,” Young said. “People appreciate the authenticity that we are giving them valuable information and not asking them to pay for it.”
Green Cover Seed employees are also always learning. They attend conferences across the country not only to market their products but to soak in the educational opportunities.
Continuing education is one of the reasons Green Cover Seed joined GROW Nebraska in 2019.
Young, who is a native of Kenesaw and studied agribusiness at UNK, started his full-time job leading the marketing department at Green Cover Seed in 2019. He was eager to learn more about marketing and social media and registered to attend GROW Nebraska’s® annual MarkeTech conference to give him a boost. He has also participated in several GROW Nebraska webinars since then to learn about social media advertising, creating marketing videos and Google advertising.
“GROW has helped me tremendously with its online webinars.” Young said.
He picked up some great tips for creating videos at GROW Nebraska’s® MarkeTech Conference. His Green Cover Seed videos have been an effective marketing tool and help the company continue to emphasize education.
Another reason for Green Cover Seed’s success is its willingness to take on risk. The company has 120 different seeds in stock at its Bladen headquarters with access to another 250 seeds.
“We do take that risk, but it pays off as we purchase the seed we know is going to be in high demand that summer,” Young said.
Green Cover Seed just purchased a facility in Kansas that will increase its capacity for inventory even more and allow them to better serve customers in Oklahoma and Texas.
Business connections and networking with others at the conferences, specifically the No-Till on the Plains conference, has also added to the company’s success.
Looking ahead, the growth potential for Green Cover Seed is unlimited as only 7-9 percent of farm ground in the U.S is currently planted with cover crops.
The company receives requests from people all over the world interested in selling its products, so the goal is to figure out a franchising or other system to make that happen.
“Our goal is to be the most-known seed company in the soil health movement,” Young said. “We want to be the John Deere of cover crops. Everyone knows who John Deere is even if they don’t buy a tractor. “
Young encourages anyone – large farmers or small back-yard gardeners – to contact him with any questions or for more information.
Green Cover Seed is currently offering a Milpa Mix of vegetable seed to gardeners or farmers for free (purchaser pays for shipping) if they agree to donate a portion of the produce to a local food pantry.