Deer Creek Seed Inc.

Taking root in the fertile Wisconsin soil
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Drew Taylor

Founded 35 years ago as a seed producer and trade wholesaler, Deer Creek Seed Inc. has grown to become one of the Midwest’s most comprehensive turf and forage seed companies. Growing, conditioning and packaging seed from its headquarters in Windsor, Wisconsin, Deer Creek Seed distributes its products all across the Midwest, from eastern Minnesota to Kentucky and Ohio.

Deer Creek was founded by Bill Leakey and Thomas Lund in 1980. The company built its reputation early on by churning out forage seed such as birdsfoot trefoil, red clover and Kentucky bluegrass. “Trefoil was the crop that built the house for us,” says Bill Leakey, president and founder of Deer Creek.

This specialty allowed Deer Creek to grow steadily until the late ‘90s, when market-wide consolidation allowed Deer Creek to make the jump into the dealer business. “I felt that one day we would go into the dealer business, but I had always stayed away because I didn’t want our existing relationships to suffer,” says Leakey. “The effect of the consolidation was that it put us in the dealer business and forced us to build our own brand.”

Today, Deer Creek boasts a full roster of products including: turf and forage seeds, wildlife food plot seed, cover crop, fodder, vegetable and restoration seed — all distributed from three locations around Wisconsin. The company also mixes proprietary blends of seed for various states’ Department of Transportation entities to be used along roadways in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “We do anything for forage systems, pasture systems, conservation and even a few vegetables,” says Leakey.

The seed market consolidation of the late ‘90s led Deer Creek to buy longtime customer J.M. Schultz Seed Company in 1999. Founded in 1903, J.M. Shultz brought over 100 years of history and a trusted name to the new joint venture, known as Schultz Turf & Forage Seed. “They have a very rich tradition that speaks to the longevity of the seed business; humanity has to have seed and we are fortunate to be in that business,” says Leakey.

Employing 25 people across three locations, Deer Creek now distributes its products through myriad channels, including trade wholesalers, big-box stores, agronomy centers, hardware stores, landscapers, contractors and e-commerce.

Mastering the market with vertical integration

Leakey’s crash course in the seed business came in 1980 when he took a class put on by two longtime seedsmen. After a week of classroom sessions in Nevada, the class took to the road and toured flower and vegetable seed producers across the region, from California to Idaho. “At every stop we talked to the president and general manager and they told us what to do, how to make money and how to breed,” Leakey says.

Deer Creek now sells its products under two brands, Deer Creek Wildlife and Master Seedsman. The second brand might sound like a bit of a boast, and it even took Leakey a little while to get on board with the moniker. “When the ad agency said ‘Bill, you guys are master seedsmen,’ I just about doubled over and slapped my knee,” says Leakey.

The more he thought about it, the more Leakey realized that the ad agency had a point. “We are vertically integrated in a way that all turf and forage seed companies use to be 50 to 75 years ago,” he says. “We know growers, agronomy, etcetera, whereas everyone else just does part of it.”

While Leakey says it took him about six months to work up the nerve to actually trademark the name, he says that it was a good decision and one that has kept the company on its toes. “By declaring ourselves ‘Master Seedsmen’ it causes us to always do a little better than we would otherwise; it establishes an exceptional benchmark,” he says.

Deer Creek’s vertical integration allows the company to keep costs low and keep prices competitive. One example is the company’s in-house seed cleaning, a service that many others in the industry sub out. “It’s dirty work and its heavy lifting, but somebody has got to do it,” says Leakey. “We have as low unit costs as anyone in the trade because for every pound of seed we clean we are making that much more of a margin,” he says.

Growing the brand and staying efficient

Deer Creek’s original campus in Ashland, Wisconsin, was built in 1987 as a primary production facility to handle seed cleaning and other basic distribution functions, but things got a little crowded at the site when Deer Creek expanded into the dealer business. “We were trying to run two businesses in a facility built for one and we were just falling all over each other,” says Leakey. The company separated the production facility and administrative offices into adjacent buildings and added a new blending and packaging facility to the campus in 2006.

Always one to keep growth opportunities in mind, Leakey had the Ashland facility designed so that warehousing and conditioning wings could easily be added. That day is coming fast as the company plans to expand and put in a modern production line. The seed business is all about capacity and the new production line should help Deer Creek stay at the top of its market. “You have to have capacity,” stresses Leakey. “Whoever is bigger, better and can do it fastest is going to be the most efficient. You as a customer should not be paying for my inefficiency.”

Deer Creek has been an invaluable resource for its industry partners, including Summit Seed Coatings, a seed coating firm based in Caldwell, Idaho, that Deer Creek has been working with since 2009. “Deer Creek has been a great company for us to work with and has been very loyal,” says Martin Luttrell, operations manager at Summit Seed Coatings. “Seed coating is very popular right now and I think our coating has helped them gain some markets,” he says.

Leakey measures the success of Deer Creek Seed not only on the amount products they are able to move through their facilities, but also the team that does that moving. “I have always been a builder and a hands-on guy, but today I’m an administrator and the thing that gives me the most pride is that we have a really good, young team,” he says.

While the turf and forage seed business has been hit by shortages in the past, Leakey is cautiously optimistic about the future. “I am always concerned about production; I don’t like the way the economy is going, but the seed business is absolutely essential to life on this planet,” says Lackey.

With a trusted line of time-tested products, plans for scalable growth and product not likely to go out of fashion anytime soon, Deer Creek Seed Inc. is poised to retain its status as one of the Midwest’s most comprehensive turf and forage seed companies.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Summit Seed Coatings