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Monsanto Tends Its Garden

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row." -- Children's' nursery rhyme

Where do you put agri-biotech giant Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) ? It's certainly not a biotech stock like Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN  ) or Genentech (NYSE: DNA  ) , even though genetic modification is core to its growth story. It's not really a chemical company like DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) , but it does sell chemicals and competes with them. It's not a food company, but it is involved in the production of foodstuffs at the most basic level.

I like these whatzit's though, because it is often the case that folks aren't quite sure how to value or assess the stock. And maybe that's still true for Monsanto.

The company certainly continues to grow. Revenue was up 15% this quarter, fueled by a 26% rise in sales from seeds and offset by a 3% rise in "productivity" sales (mostly herbicides and the like). In turn, that strong growth was fueled by a surprising 52% jump in soybean revenue (helped by both more acres and timing), while fruits and vegetables continue to rise strongly from a very modest base.

On the other side of the ledger, results were still okay. Gross margin improved nicely and reported operating income rose by nearly 19%. Free cash flow doesn't look so hot on a trailing-nine-month basis, but that is due largely to working capital items that should resolve.

I think I've made the basic case for Monsanto in the past -- less arable land and more people needing food mean ongoing demand for more reliable and higher-yielding crops. To that end, Monsanto is still looking for acreage of Roundup Ready corn to increase by over 50% between now and 2009. What's more, the company continues to explore other technology options -- like, perhaps, a higher-lysine corn variety that would allow ethanol producers to sell the leftover grain material to poultry producers.

No doubt Monsanto looks expensive by its P/E, but I find price-earnings analysis to be a pretty blunt tool. Then again, my cash flow-based valuation approach doesn't show these shares to be a screaming bargain either, so I can't say that the P/E is so terribly misleading in this case. Another one of those great companies to consider buying on a dip, I'd need a little pruning of today's price to get really interested.

For more Foolish food for thought:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).

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