Meet IPSA President Christine Varner

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This busy seed industry executive has attended many IPSA annual meetings, but it was just a few years ago that she became a board member and grew more involved in the association on a larger scale.

Many children dream about growing up on a farm. For Chris Varner, this was a reality, although she laughingly recalls that she didn’t always appreciate this.

“I was raised on a farm in Central Michigan where we raised Michigan Certified wheat and navy beans,” she says. “We worked hard growing up and had to do things like picking up stones in the fields and hand hoeing the dry bean fields. I am the youngest of 10, and we always had a huge garden that we would have to work in. My mother canned and froze a lot of produce. I credit my parents for instilling a work ethic in their children at a very young age. This is something I am very thankful for as an adult, but wasn’t when I was 8!”

Following in the footsteps of her five older brothers — who all went to Michigan State University to study agriculture — Varner was very active in Future Farmers of America (FFA) in high school and always knew she, too, would go to Michigan State and major in crop and soil science.

She earned her bachelor of science degree there in 1987, and then spent the first 17 years of her career working in seed corn production. Through that experience, Varner says she met many wonderful people in the seed industry and seed growers.

“My passion for the seed business grew during those years,” she recalls.

“The trust that is placed in a seed company and their products by customers is enormous! When you think of being the first choice they make every season, it is very humbling. I’ve always strived to put our customers first and to provide seed that is of the highest quality, and placed correctly on their farm to give them the capability of achieving their yield goals. It is one of the most satisfying things when a customer lets you know in the fall after harvest how well his crops did.”

As president of DF Seeds LLC., which is based in Dansville, Michigan — a company that offers soybean and wheat varieties specifically selected for each microclimate throughout the Great Lakes State — it is her responsibility to promote the interest of family-owned or closely held seed companies.

Varner is also president of the Independent Professional Seed Association (IPSA), an association she joined more than 20 years ago.

Formed in 1989 by a group of seed producers who recognized the need for an organization to represent the unique needs of independent seed companies, IPSA is not only dedicated to promoting the interests and capabilities of family-owned companies, but addresses research and biotechnology issues, and increases the media presence of the industry in an increasingly competitive and dynamic business culture.

“It is my responsibility to assist the other board members and IPSA Executive Director Todd Martin in the guidance of the policies and activities of the association, which focus on education, member services and business development,” she explains.

While Varner has attended many IPSA annual meetings over the past two decades, it was not until 2013 that she became a board member and grew more involved in the association on a larger scale.

When asked what the biggest benefit is that she receives from IPSA membership, Varner doesn’t hesitate: “It is the friendships I have developed with fellow members and board members. The time the board spends on conference calls, face-to-face meetings with each other, and meetings with the technology providers helps to cement the bond we have. Even though we are competitors, we are all working toward a common goal — to be the trusted advisors of our customers and be their local connection and ‘go-to’ person and company.”

As IPSA president, her main goal is to continue to promote what the association does and offers, and cites its Annual Conference as one of the best that anyone could attend. With the next conference slated for January 8-10 in Indianapolis, Varner says, “The education and networking opportunities are first in class. With industry consolidation, it is important that we maintain relationships with all IPSA members, as well as technology providers.

IPSA offers something for everyone with educational and scholarship programs, as well as group buying programs. We have a very competitive research program that provides members with insight that they can’t get easily from independent parties.”

While it’s clear that IPSA offers many solid benefits for its members, there is still room for growth.

“We need to educate on the farmer/ customer level,” Varner stresses. “We are a valuable partner to their operations and that should increase and create awareness of IPSA. Each of our members need to tell our story and the story of the independents.”

What also needs to be cleared up, she adds, are misconceptions that the general public may have about the seed industry in general.

“It seems that there are many in the general public who don’t know what we really do as a seed company. We think it’s obvious, but to those who don’t know much about our industry, it is easy for them to accept as fact something they hear on the news or read on social media. I would guess that many of us — when asked what we do — are immediately asked, ‘You don’t sell Roundup seeds, do you?’ It automatically seems bad to them, and this has a stigma associated with it.

As an industry, we need do a much better public relations job and take the time to share all the positive things we do daily. It is a humble industry for the most part, and we are all very busy managing our companies, but we do need to actively ‘toot our own horn’ sometimes.”

Additionally, with the advent of seed that can be purchased online, as well as other purchasing methods, Varner stresses the need for the industry to reaffirm its value to customers as a trusted, local source that can provide the correct agronomic information for their farm and be able to service their needs.

Away from the seed industry responsibilities, Varner enjoys her limited spare time hunting, fishing and gardening, “There is something about being outside that is so humbling,” she says. “All of these hobbies are great stress relievers too. It’s hard to stay stressed when doing any of them. I also enjoy traveling, especially to visit my daughters who live in Texas and Northern Michigan, and my son who recently moved to Washington DC.”

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