Growing food is a fundamental requirement in the world; we all need to eat, after all. And while it's a commodity business in many ways, some companies have managed to cement their positions as industry leaders, like Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) and Deere & Company (NYSE:DE). These are some of the best stocks in agriculture. But you shouldn't overlook lesser known names that that have built great businesses by taking a more diversified approach to the space, like Agrium (USA) (NYSE: AGU).

The big seed
Monsanto is a name you've probably heard before. The company operates in the seed and crop protection spaces, providing both the seeds and the pesticides to protect them as they grow. That said, Monsanto is a company people tend to love to hate. This is because its work goes well beyond selling seeds. It actively manipulates the traits of seeds, creating seed varieties that are heartier than what nature offers on its own. In fact, it actually licenses these traits to other seed providers.

Where you fall on the genetically modified organisms (GMO) debate will likely dictate your opinion of Monsanto as a company. However, it's hard to deny the company's sales success, with revenues advancing in nine of the last 10 years (revenues dipped slightly in the just ended fiscal year). Earnings and dividends have been more volatile, but the seed maker is clearly doing something right from a big-picture perspective. Which brings us to the big picture: The world needs more food, and Monsanto's products can help make that happen, even in some pretty inhospitable places.

Whether you like it or hate it, Monsanto is a leading name in the agriculture space with technology that is cutting edge. This seed maker should be on your short list.

A John Deere tractor. Image source: Deere & Company.

Tractors around the world
While seeds and pesticides are a big part of the agriculture business, there's a lot more to the process of farming. That's where a global giant like Deere and its iconic green tractors come in (about a quarter of its revenues are derived from outside the U.S. market). If you are working the land, you have to have the right tools, and Deere provides the right equipment for everything from a small hobby farm to giant farms that grow grain that will eventually be shipped across the world's oceans.

Deere's products are big-ticket items that last a long time, so its business tends to be cyclical. For example, if the grain market is weak, farmers might put off buying a new tractor, or delay some maintenance to save a few bucks. However, Deere's commitment to its shareholders is pretty resolute: It's increased its dividend annually in each of the last 10 years. And despite the ups and downs of its business, the payout ratio only exceeded 40% once over that span.

If you are looking for a reliable dividend payer in the agriculture space, Deere is probably one of the best options around. Sure, the top and bottom lines will ebb and flow, but unless we stop eating farm-grown food, or farmers start using oxen to plow the fields again, it looks like the dividend is pretty safe.

Jack of all trades
There are other giant names in agriculture you could look at. But perhaps you'd prefer something a little further off the beaten path, like Agrium. This Canadian company is a bit of an odd mix. It sells crop protection (about a third of revenues), crop nutrients (also about a third), seeds (around 10%), and other farming related products and services (the remainder of the top line). It's kind of a jack of all trades in agriculture.

The agriculture sales market. Image source: Agrium.

It manages this by having a retail network throughout the Americas and in Australia. In fact, it believes the fragmented farm retail market continues to be ripe for consolidation. For example, since the turn of the decade, Agrium has acquired over 250 retail locations, expanding its reach and giving it more opportunity to sell the fertilizer products it produces in-house as well as products created by others in the agriculture business. In the end, it's kind of like a one-stop shop for investors looking to get agriculture exposure with not one, but two ways to benefit: industry growth and consolidation. That's why it should be high up on your list if you're looking for the best stocks in agriculture.

The winner's circle
Monsanto, Deere, and Agrium have worldwide businesses and solid reputations that position them to not only serve the agriculture market, but to prosper as countries around the world work to feed their citizens. Monsanto (GMO warts and all) and Deere are very focused on what they do, and they do those things well. They are most appropriate for investors seeking to tap into their respective niches.

If, however, you are looking for a more diversified option, Agrium could be right for you, since it offers so many products and services across its expanding retail network -- including both its own products and those of others.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.