SPRING GROVE, Pa. — “Now entering the seedy part of town,” announces a sign posted at the American Seed Co.’s retail store checkout.
A glance around the retail store quickly affirms the tongue-in-cheek message. Containers in an array of sizes — from large glass canisters filled with sweet-corn kernels to neat rows of smaller jars and packets of garden and floral seeds — line three walls from floor to ceiling. Earlier in the spring, bags of onion sets and seed potatoes added more options for vegetable farmers and gardeners looking to fill their spring planting needs.
On a fourth wall, shelves displaying popcorn, gourmet salt and popping oil showcase the firm’s start-up success, a venture called Carlton Snack Co.
What began as a small, popcorn-marketing business has expanded into a thriving wholesale, retail and online seed business for Mike Rishel and his family.
It started in 1991 when his late wife, Wanda, decided to open a small business for herself with a focus on marketing a popular snack food: popcorn. Her Carlton Snack Foods business quickly sank deep roots in the southwestern York County hamlet of Porters Sideling, not far from the town of Spring Grove.
“She started with this little store. We did deliveries with a pickup truck,” said Mike Rishel about the fledgling snack-food entrepreneur.
“It didn’t do all that much business the first year,” he remembers.
Early on though, in addition to local buyers, they picked up some wholesale customers in New York state. They also supplied the popcorn for the Baltimore Orioles baseball stadium’s snack sales.
But, concerned that the popcorn business wasn’t enough to survive on, Rishel said the business made a horizontal move within the year, acquiring the American Seed Co.
“It ran about a year and then she told me she needed help,” he said of his wife’s plea to lend her a hand in juggling all the tasks related to the business’s growing sales.
Rishel resigned from his job to become a full-time seed marketer. Today, along with serving an extensive lineup of wholesale customers, the retail store continues to cater to local buyers. It also now has a website and online presence.
“Seeds are a whole different business than popcorn, but popcorn is also a seed, so it seemed to fit,” Rishel says of the decision to merge the two diverse, but related, product categories.
Since the beginning, grass seed has played a major role in American Seed Co.’s sales. Most of the grass seed supplies are shipped in from growers in Oregon, Washington and Canada, then mixed on site to customers’ specifications. A large, tumbling mixer housed in the warehouse area facilitates the blending of the company’s own grass, wildflower and popular bird-seed mixes.
“Early on, we did a lot of ryegrass, but now it’s more and more turf grass,” Rishel said. “Turf grass will always be a big part of our business. There is more and more building, and new construction going on all the time, and it all requires the planting of grass.”
Much of the grass seed business is in turf fescue. Mike said that in earlier years he didn’t care much for tall fescue grass. But ongoing improvements by growers have turned him into an enthusiast of the newer varieties of the popular lawn grass, with its greater genetic tendencies to spread and fill out lawn area. It has also been developed to be somewhat slower growing, as well as more drought-resistant.
Field corn has been a rapidly growing addition to the business over the years, and American Seed has developed its own American hybrid varieties, grown at various areas around the country.
Seed potatoes also make up a large chunk of their sales lineup.
“We wanted to have our own brand of field corn,” Rishel said.
An extensive catalog includes the currently popular glyphosate-tolerant and “stacked trait” corns engineered for resistance to various pests and diseases.
“We also have non-GMO corn and a little organic, which I think will become more popular,” said Rishel.
“When we first started in field corn, there were not a lot of genetics out there. Since then, the traits developments in seed corn have come a long way,” Rishel said.
“But, we’re seeing a bit of a reversal in that. A lot of people are becoming anti-‘big-ag’ and somewhat ‘big-trait-company’ resistant,” he said. “Some farmers say they’re getting a better price with more conventional corn, and getting premiums for non-GMO types. “
“Down the road, there will always be farmers who will use the trait seeds. Farmers are very innovative. They do what they have to in order to survive. If they need to move to something else to do that, they will,” Rishel said about his long-time observance of planting trends and customer demands.
The small, historic settlement of Porters Sideling, which remains home to the business, grew up along a convergence of three sets of railroad tracks that crisscross this corner of York County. The Carlton Snack Foods and American Seed Co. site, now sprawling across several warehousing, mixing, retail and office buildings, remains in its early location, mere feet from one of the rail lines.
Two of the three rail lines crossing through the village are still fully functional and carry several trains through town daily, each train whistle a reminder of a derailment that decades ago took place just outside the building. The toppled train cars miraculously caused little damage to the site’s facilities, standing less than the proverbial stone’s-throw distance away.
“If a train would tip, it would come right through that wall; that’s why we don’t have anyone sitting at the back wall of the office,” said employee Joni Halligan, nodding toward the back of the building, just several yards behind her desk. A half-dozen employees — plus several cats napping around the offices and warehouses, “hired” to control rodents — keep the business humming: taking and filling orders, mixing seeds, loading trucks and working with both wholesale and retail customers.
While multiple trains run through daily, all the shipping done by the American Seed business is via tractor-trailer. Rishel spends much of his time on the road behind the wheel of his big-rig truck, delivering to customers primarily located across Pennsylvania and New York.
After his wife died in 2011, Mike later remarried. Now, his wife, Janice, also assists with the family business. Her daughter, Lindsey Zeranko, is the customer service specialist who handles the retail store and maintains the seed and snack food website. Zeranko’s husband, Tony, supervises much of the custom mixing of seed blends, and along with other employees, handles tons of bagged seed on a daily basis, from warehouse to mixer to delivery trucks.
The retail store is located at 6051 Carlton Ave., Spring Grove, PA 17362, with retail hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. It can be contacted at 717-225-3730 or 800-214-3340, or at www.americanseedco.com.