3 Tools You Need in Your Branding Toolbox
In the previous instalments in this series on branding, I’ve discussed the building blocks to begin understanding your brand and how to build it. The final stage to revamping your brand is to understand that your brand has a story to tell.
In order for your brand to reflect the values of your audience, it has to engage with them through good content that shows what you’re about. That you practice what you preach, in a sense. But how do you go about drumming up ideas for that content? There’s a few ways.
Think about people. Good stories are all about people. Your company is made up of people. Your brand is an expression of what those people are about. It has a story to tell. Maybe it’s a story of the person who developed a new product in your company. Or someone who has a new way of thinking about business or the industry. Your audience wants to feel personally connected to your brand.
When it comes time to tell that story, you need to think about format. Once you decide on the story you’re going to tell, you need to decide the best way to tell it. In a written form? Audio? Video? There are several different tools you can use, and each has its own advantages.
- Written — this is the traditional and time-honoured way of telling stories. It’s a personal form of story-telling. People like to sit down in a quiet place and read. It helps them to really connect with the subject matter.
- Video — Some stories really lend themselves to video. And, it’s hugely popular in the online world. That said, video can require more resources. And, it can lack the “imagination” aspect of the written form, which allows people to create pictures in their mind.
- Audio — Audio content offers many of the advantages of video in terms of its digital appeal. Podcasts are immensely popular. It often doesn’t require as many resources as video to produce, and still allows your audience to create an image in their mind and fill in the blanks themselves.
All three of these formats have their place. With the advent of the online world, video and audio are more popular than ever, and becoming easier to produce.
Use all the tools at your disposal to show that your brand is tech-savvy, relevant and progressive. Your audience will appreciate it and you’ll reap the benefits.
How to Get Paid for Being Told No
No one likes being told “no,” especially salespeople. In fact, fear of rejection is the top reason why salespeople hate to prospect for new business. They hate the thought of being turned down because they believe it’s a personal attack on their character. If they understood the value of being told “no,” they’d actually look forward to hearing it. Here’s why.
Kirby Puckett was a professional baseball player who played his entire 12-year career for the Minnesota Twins. He was their all-time leader in hits, runs, doubles and total bases, while establishing a life-time batting average of .318. That sounds really good until you realize that in order to hit .318, Kirby struck out two of every three times at bat. That doesn’t sound good, does it? But in baseball, those numbers were league-leading.
Striking out or being told “no” is also good in sales. For example, imagine you receive $100 every time you get a sale and your closing rate is 25 percent, which means you sell one out of every four prospects you call on. Let’s say you call on your first prospect and he turns you down. How much do you get paid for being told “no”? That’s right, $25. You call on your second prospect and get turned down again. How much have you earned now? Another $25 for a total of $50. You call on your third prospect and again get turned down. You now have $75. You call on your fourth prospect and that prospect buys. You’ve earned all $100.
Since your closing percentage was 25 percent you had to be turned down three times before getting an order. If your closing rate had been 50 percent, you would have been paid $50 for every no. Getting a “no” is a positive thing because it takes you one step closer to an order and your reward. You have to get a “no” to get to that “yes.”
Show your salespeople how prospecting makes them money. Show them how getting told “no” is an essential part of the process of getting an order and not something to take personally.
When field sellers understand the value of being told “no,” two things happen. First, sales increase because they spend more time prospecting and, second, their closing percentage increases, paying them more for every “no.”
Getting told “no” is a good thing because it pays.
These 3 Things Make a Good Story
Content Marketing 101 — create and distribute consistent, relevant, and engaging content that attracts a defined audience and ultimately drives action. Regardless of the channel — website, newsletter, social media, video, sell sheets, or webinars — your content should tell a story. Why? Storytelling is one of the best tools for generating an emotional response. Content that generates an emotional response is more likely to have an impact and be remembered.
When I was a kid, instead of reading me books, my father would tell me stories. Sometimes the stories were about his life. Sometimes the stories were ones he heard from other people. And sometimes the stories were made up to simply entertain his young daughter. I know a good story, and have been privileged to have grown up around a talented storyteller. Yet, I don’t consider myself a good storyteller.
Since storytelling does not come naturally to me, I have had to dissect and closely observe storytelling. Storytelling is an art that starts with a great plot line. There is a structure to a great story. Here’s what I have learned about the architecture of a great story.
Every story can be broken down into three segments: the problem, the journey and the solution.
- The most powerful stories are human. A good story starts by introducing characters. Who are the characters, and what makes them relatable? Once you have begun to paint a picture of the characters, introduce the problem that they are facing. Remember: stories thrive on conflict and drama. You need to outline a problem or challenge facing the characters.
- How did the character(s) address the problem? What was the character’s journey to a solution? Here is where you can introduce or build upon themes, which are crucial to a story. Without a theme, you are basically listing events, not telling a story. Themes raise questions and suggest answers. Not to be confused with messages, which are specific examples, the theme is a general principle. Themes may include: ambition, discovery, freedom, power, security, etc.
- The story progresses to the grand finale — the solution. How will the characters resolve the problem? The resolution may be a mistake made and lesson learned with the problem still existing. However, the story still needs to aim towards a close. Where a product should never be a main character, a product can be part of the solution.
Storytelling is a skill, honed over time with practice. Use your story as practice. Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours?
Changing Climate Impacts Our Environment and Economy
Oliver Manufacturing sits on the outskirts of La Junta, Colorado, in what’s known as the Arkansas Valley. From our offices, one can watch the wind carry tumbleweeds across the dry plains or spot summer storms developing on the horizon. We always hope for those storms to drift our way, bearing with them refreshing rains, but they rarely do. It’s something that I long ago came to accept about the region I grew up in. And yet, every year seems to swelter more than the last.
Really, “seems to,” might not be strong enough language. On June 18, the Otero County Sheriff’s Office posted this in part of an online PSA:
“The lower 2/3 of the State of Colorado is currently under fire restrictions, and the Southeast Region of Colorado is under Stage 2 Fire Restrictions. Otero County is the last to go to restrictions, however, based on the extreme level of drought, extreme dry conditions, and serious lack of moisture, the safe and responsible thing to do is to enact these restrictions. It has been 10 years since conditions have been this dire, and a burn ban was put into effect.”
Looking at climate data, one can see that the sentiment that the world is consistently getting warmer is accurate. 2016 marked the third year in a row to beat global temperature highs. In the United States specifically, 2016 was the second hottest year in the country’s recorded history. The year’s annual average of 54.9 degrees Fahrenheit only barely lost to 2012, which keeps the title for Hottest Year in the United States with an average high of 55.3 degrees. Do you want to know the interesting part? 2017 had an average high of 54.6 degrees. Not far off from setting records itself.
Given that annual temperatures are trending hotter globally and domestically, one might think that precipitation would be trending in the polar opposite direction. So, imagine my surprise when I looked into Colorado’s annual precipitation records. Colorado (and the country at large) has experienced above average levels of precipitation for five years in a row.
But just because precipitation averages out at higher than normal doesn’t mean that drought cannot persist in between periods of more rainfall. 2017 featured record-breaking wetness and dryness levels, along with record regional temperatures high and low, across the country. As seen in Otero Fire Department’s PSA, a given state can see record-setting amounts of precipitation while a particular region of that state simultaneously suffers from extreme drought.
Droughts present an array of challenges to the communities they plague. Wildfires, strict caps on water resources and harsh growing conditions, all stem from it. A drought is characterized by an abnormally low amount of rainfall in a region over a prolonged period of time. This results in a water shortage, which leads to economic, environmental and public health issues in the affected regions. Each of these problems impacts farmers and manufacturers in big ways. So what allows for drought conditions to form in the first place?
It all goes back to what we pump into our atmosphere, and how those gases interact with the air over our oceans. Weather systems form over the sea and travel inland, bringing wind and precipitation with them. Dependent on an array of factors, weather systems can change direction and intensity on a dime. This dubious nature makes the task of predicting long-term weather patterns incredibly difficult. Because of how nuanced climate science is, it’s important to understand that weather phenomenon over the oceans can effect changes so far inland as Colorado, for example, and that humans can themselves effect weather phenomenon as far out as the middle of the ocean.
In 2009, 18 scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Crop Science Society of America, addressed Congress with a letter stating, “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”
The scientific community’s consensus on climate change is overwhelmingly in support of the theory that it is real and that humans are directly responsible for its most rapid developments. As temperatures veer further and further away from their precedents, climate change on a regional level is getting harder and harder to deny. In the future we can expect more dynamic change to take place — along with possibly more severe patterns of tropical storms, inland rainfall, snowfall and drought.
There is a lot of fervor over climate change, and I’m starting to suspect that those in opposition to the notion of it just don’t want to accept that we, humans, bear responsibility. How does one “oppose” climate change, anyway? One can ignore climate change the same way that one can ignore a drought — by pretending to not notice the brutal dry heat and the wilting crops. But one still feels sweaty and cotton-mouthed, and one does notice when the crops have died. Similarly, climate change will be noticed, as we can observe today through the data provided above and through other measurements such as regional snow-pack and glacial melting at the earth’s poles.
Adverse weather effects compound upon directly human-induced problems, too. Agricultural runoff pollutes lakes and rivers. When a drought occurs, the total amount of available potable water can be further diminished by the presence of pollutants. This is not only a problem for farmers of crops and livestock, but for people and communities as well.
Livestock is one of if not the greatest contributor to exorbitant levels of atmospheric methane gas. Cows, goats and sheep account for approximately 27 percent of all human-caused methane gas emissions. The methane is released into the atmosphere and traps heat from the sun that would otherwise reflect off the planet’s surface back into space, causing temperatures on the planet’s surface to rise.
It’s easy to get hung up on sets of statistics; if presented the right way, practically any data set can be used to back up any position. The point I’m making is that climate is complicated. Just because weather seems to be trending one way in a daily or weekly basis, does not mean that it’s indicative of the greater trends in motion. Despite record low temperatures in some regions, the global average temperature is still rising. Despite greater overall annual precipitation in Colorado and the United States, specific regions are slammed by worse and worse drought conditions. And thus, just because larger trends may sound more positive on the surface than under a microscope, does not mean that global warming bodes well for our future in terms of more annual rainfall.
Climate change is complex and nuanced. Although we don’t fully understand the underlying mechanisms that propel it, Earth’s leading scientists have a pretty solid idea of how it all works. But the only way we can come to understand it further is through proper research, something that many private and government entities try to stifle in search of personal gain. Especially in America.
The global environment is slowly but steadily changing. Scientists predict that water shortages will become much more prevalent in the United States in the coming decades. Storms and other weather systems are becoming more severe. This will present new challenges for farmers and the agriculture industry to face.
It’s impossible to know for sure what direction our climate is headed, or more precisely, where it will break landfall. But one thing is for certain: we aren’t yet prepared if harsh conditions are to worsen as predicted.
Are You Allowing Your Brand to Evolve?
Do you think of your brand as a living thing? You need to. Because of the fact your brand is ultimately a psychological construct in the minds of your customers, it changes over time as that audience’s values change. It grows and evolves, and you don’t want to stifle that growth.
You need to know the following about the nature of your brand:
- It doesn’t just have customers — it has an audience. Thinking of your customers this way opens the door to promoting yourself in new and interesting ways.
- It doesn’t just serve to sell product — it serves to reflect and reinforce your audience’s values. Your brand has a relationship with its audience, and vice-versa. Relationships either grow, remain stagnant or die. In business, you want to grow your relationships. You do that by engaging your audience and staying fresh.
- It needs maintenance. To maintain it, you need to constantly ensure your brand is evolving in the right way. Does it continue to connect with your audience?
Thankfully, today’s communication technology allows your brand to engage with your audience easily and effectively. There’s some simple ways to reach out to them and do this.
While traditional advertising is still an important part of the overall marketing strategy, customers and potential customers — your audience — are looking for engaging content. You need to have an active presence on the web and social media and offer a range of engaging content — articles, infographics, audio and video are all important.
In the next instalment in this four-part series on branding, I’ll discuss how you can begin ensuring your brand connects with its audience online and doesn’t get lost in all the noise.
Is the Fear of Software Keeping You In the Slow Lane?
For a lot of seed businesses, the idea of implementing a new seed management software system is often scary and intimidating. Many seed businesses end up deciding that they are better off doing things the way they have become accustomed to, even when status quo means continuing living with software or software providers that are far from perfect. The slow lane on a highway is often more comfortable.
These are some typical excuses that a business may use but are these really justified?
A new more modern system is too expensive.
Small- and medium-sized companies have to work with smaller budgets and often have to choose between making capital investments in new processing/warehousing equipment and implementing a new software system.
In reality, a new software system helps the business plan better and allows it to deal with larger volumes of orders and inventory by improving the business processes and providing better visibility so that throughput is improved, shipments are on time, lowering need to hold inventory for extended periods. This can contribute to a business’s growth as much as, if not more than, new equipment.
Spreadsheets are just as good.
Spreadsheets are great tools, but they cannot take the place of an integrated seed management system that gives you more complete control over all your production, inventory, quality and sales data. Replacing the spreadsheets eliminates slow and error-prone manual data entry and maintenance and out-of-date spreadsheets being updated by different people and departments.
The team is just too busy.
The team is busy keeping spreadsheets up to date, locating and shuffling files and paperwork, walking around the facility trying to figure out what inventory they have and responding to customer queries and issues. A modern comprehensive seed management system frees the team from time-sucking manual, repetitive and duplicate tasks. This helps the business run more smoothly by consolidating data, so you can make decisions off one version of the truth and provides up-to-date, accurate visibility of inventory.
A new system will lack flexibility and not be tailored to my specific needs.
Every business is different, and a multitude of work arounds and adapted processes will have been put in place to accommodate some of the unique requirements. A good software vendor will keep their systems up to date with business and regulatory changes and will also provide customization services to accommodate the specific functionality needed and the ability to add on capabilities as the business grows.
Comprehensive software systems are only for big businesses.
A flexible seed management system can adapt to small- and medium-sized businesses and be the perfect integrated line of business solution for bigger companies.
Investing in software gives businesses the potential to do more business, have happier customers, achieve their goals and give their employees the tools they need to succeed. You really do have nothing to fear but fear itself.
3 Ways to be Worthy of Attention
As I explained in a recent column, tackling four problem areas will help you determine where your brand is lacking and get you on the road to sprucing it up — Connection, Communications, Engagement and Appearance.
All four areas have one thing in common: they help your brand engage with your customers and get their attention in a technology-dominated world.
You’ve probably read that the average person’s attention span is getting shorter. This is mostly a myth, but there’s a grain of truth in it. A recent Techvibes interview with Twitter Canada’s head of research notes that people who consume more media or spend more time on social media have “bursts of high attention” that last a short period, which “allows them to process information more quickly. You’re training yourself to vet information better and dig into the stuff that interests you most.”
In short, we’ve become selective readers in the online world. It’s not that we have shorter attention spans. Rather, our attention is being pulled in so many directions that we have to be choosy in terms of what information we spend time digesting. We can’t afford to waste time on information that isn’t useful to us in a significant way.
What does that mean for you and your brand? It means you need to cut through the noise by offering quality content to your audience. If people are going to give your brand the time of day, the content you provide to them needs to be useful and worthy of their attention. How can you do this?
- Be concise. Whether it’s social media content, website content, print advertising, or what have you, get to the point. Don’t use fancy words if you don’t have to. Don’t use 20 words where 10 or 15 will suffice.
- Be indispensable. People don’t have to choose your brand. They can go to a similar one elsewhere. Or so they think. Tell them why your company is the one they should choose. What makes you unique in the market? Make this your central message.
- Don’t pitch. The days of the product pitchman are over, for the most part. You’re not selling snake oil on a late-night infomercial. In agriculture, we have an important story to tell. Tell that story in an engaging way. This is done though content marketing in print and online. The great thing about the online world is you can use video and audio to promote your brand new and compelling ways, allowing your brand to grow and evolve.
See my next column in this series on branding for insights into why your brand needs to evolve.
The More You Study Product, the Less You Will Sell
What makes some seed sellers more successful than others? It took me two years but I figured it out — accidentally.
It all started when I hired Fred, the father-in-law of one of our employees. Fred had been working as a mechanic for an implement dealer until he hurt his back and became disabled. He didn’t want to retire so, as a favor to the employee, I signed him as a dealer. He knew nothing about selling seed corn, but he knew a lot of farmers who liked and trusted him. He sold almost every farmer he called on. He never studied product. Instead, he practiced his sales story. He was my rookie of the year and one of my top dealers. We provided the product knowledge he needed.
Feeling confident about what happened with Fred, I took a chance on a former assistant football coach from a major university. He was a goal-setter and a motivator. He was so successful at dealer recruitment that he soon had a team of field sellers who never missed their sales goals. We provided the product knowledge he needed.
Knowing I was onto something, I followed with a third non-salesperson — a bread truck driver who was accustomed to being on his route by 3 a.m. every morning. He didn’t know many farmers but, in the towns he served, he knew every businessman who was willing to refer him to their farmer friends. With his work habits, no one could match him. We provided the product knowledge he needed.
See a trend? It’s not just that inexperienced people can become great salespeople, but that product knowledge isn’t needed to get sales. To finally prove my point, during my 17 years as VP of seed sales, my sales team of more than 1,200 sales reps orchestrated 17 consecutive years of sales increases. The sales reps who contributed the most to our increase each year knew the least about the products they were selling. They sold themselves.
The most successful seed sales reps I work with today spend most of their time honing their sales story and little time studying product. Companies spend far too much time and money training their salespeople on products, believing it’s the key to seed selling success. Most are finding out the hard way that the opposite is true.
Three Keys to a Successful Employee Appreciation Event
Every June, we invite all our full-time employees and their families to the Wisconsin Dells. The company covers two hotel nights, provides dinner Friday and Saturday nights and a $100 gift card. We recognize professional and personal milestones and provide a company update Friday night. The rest of the weekend is theirs to enjoy. How those days have been spent is a diverse collection of stories from all-day (and night!) at the waterparks to reading a book by the pool.
In 2018, we had more than 82 percent of our full-time employees attend and benefits to the company and employees cannot be overstated. Below are three keys we’ve learned when planning a successful employee appreciation event.
It’s Not About “the Company”
When planning the first event, I envisioned a series of company presentations from each location and “allowing” employees to present the successes of each facility. I quickly learned that employees were not as excited about giving a presentation to the entire company as I was! An employee appreciation event isn’t about promoting the business; it’s about showing appreciation of the employees and their families. The last thing a family with young children wants to do is try to keep the kids quiet for a two-hour annual review of the company’s success metrics. A short company update (without PowerPoint) delivered through stories, is more relatable and memorable.
Employees Should Plan the Event
The first two employee appreciation weekends were planned by the company’s leadership, while the third was planned by a committee of employees. Which of the three do you think had the best attendance and highest rated feedback? Providing a few guidelines and letting employees plan the event ensures that the employees and their families feel the event is about them and not just another company meeting.
Make it Personal
Announcing high school graduations, marriages, births and other major family moments at the beginning of the event gives employees great conversation material and will help stimulate interaction. Encouraging those with supervisory roles to share other positive, personal stories during their interactions at the event will help more reserved employees open up and engage, which creates a more comfortable atmosphere.
In short, any event that is designed to show employees that the company values their contributions needs to have the employees and their families at the heart. Incorporating the lessons we’ve learned will help your next employee appreciation event be more engaging and memorable.
Consolidation …Where Do You Stand When the Dust Settles?
Agricultural markets are no stranger to consolidation. Although not necessarily becoming more corporate, American farms have been shifting production to larger and larger acreages for more than three decades. Driven by commodity price pressure and shrinking margins, many participants drop from the marketplace, and those that stay have to get bigger to take advantage of economies of scale.
It stands to reason that the product and service providers to a consolidating industry inevitably deal with the same pressures. Through history, the seed industry has certainly seen its fair share of consolidated business … not our first disco, right? We now find ourselves in the latest “round” of consolidation, driven by low commodity prices due to four years of bumper crops, increased stockpiles and the realization that corn (or switchgrass or whatever) may never replace petroleum.
I chose the term “round,” because consolidation is not so much a straight-line growth path as it is a natural business cycle. The cycle inevitably creates large, well-funded organizations that are very focused on a business plan. In our current business environment, corporate plans are many times driven by shareholder value and place secondary priority on things like customer relationships, needs or demands. At this point in the cycle, there is room for a niche to be exploited.
Start ups or diversifying businesses come in the back door to serve areas left ignored. Smaller, adaptable companies with lower overheads may find places to profit where larger companies couldn’t. Merging companies are often the true innovators. They are eager to meet changing customer needs versus carrying out an established plan. I can’t help but think of the craft brewing/distilling explosion in the U.S. (maybe influenced by the fact I am writing this late on a Friday afternoon).
Our business has a plan in place to work in this changing environment, and we have made some assumptions about needs of seed conditioners in this cycle.
Large scale seed companies with multiple facilities have to be concerned with consistency. Consistent quality as demanded by the customer has to be a given. Consider the complexity of producing homogenous product (not to mention doing it at the same capacity and cost!) from multiple conditioning sites, no two are alike even within the same company. The differences in processes and equipment can be surprising from site to site. Mergers and acquisitions stand to multiply these issues. Surely there will be opportunities to help companies evaluate and implement consistent conditioning lines from facility to facility. By doing so, these companies can continue to deliver value through economies of scale.
For the niche provider, specialization and differentiation have to take priority. Maybe your facility throughput allows you to pay special attention to a contaminant that higher capacity facilities struggle with. Maybe you have determined a way to put a more attractive finish on your seed treatment through newly adopted technologies. Maybe you have considered diversifying into alternative markets (think organic or hemp) that fall outside the plans of your large competitor. Through early innovation and nimble adaptation, the niche provider continues to be a key provider to the industry.
Have you identified where you fit as the dust starts to settle? Or, what to do about it?
Trade War’s End Game
2018 promised a lot for soybean producers. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted annual U.S. soybean exports would break 2.5 billion bushels by 2020. Brazil expected to surpass production of approximately 70 million to 110 million bushels this year.
These predictions boded well for soybean producers and sellers, as well as processing and conditioning equipment manufacturers. However, on March 8, President Donald Trump imposed steel and aluminum import tariffs of 25 and 10 percent, respectively, with temporary exemptions for Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
American steel suppliers took advantage of the situation, and increased steel prices passed from manufacturers to their end-users — some of whom were soybean producers. Following China’s subsequent decision to block all imports of U.S. soybeans, a more promising outcome for the American soybean market billowed away. Five months of quaky trade talks later, and what has formed in the absence of a positive year is an ugly and toxic cloud of uncertainty and insecurity. China and the United States briefly appeared to resolve the trade dispute after the president stated that he planned to bail out Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE. China and the United States rescinded their tariffs, only for President Trump to impose them again and for China to threaten the same. Since then, the two powers have been interlocked in an ambiguous state of contention and comradery.
Much like Schrodinger with his cat, it seems that the very act of observing Trump’s foreign trade policy is enough to change it. The trade war is dead. In a blink, it looms on the horizon, very much alive. (I dread what effect that the very act of writing this article may have on the space-time continuum.)
Trump initiates a trade war against China, states that NAFTA must be renegotiated on a basis of national security, and, in utter tone-deafness, saves ZTE, the Chinese company that pleaded guilty in 2017 to violating U.S. trade sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
It is important to note that ZTE illegally sold American technology to Iran and North Korea; sanctions aside, the theft of American intellectual property is exactly what the president used in addition to a deficit as justification for tariffs against China in the first place. (And there goes the space-time continuum.)
Across the globe, China threatens tariffs one day and then actually offers to increase the import of American sorghum the next. Meanwhile, American soybean producers have no choice but to brace themselves and cross their fingers as the pendulum swings.
What lies next for the United States and China is uncertain. And things were further complicated from America’s perspective on May 29 when Mexican President Peña Nieto declared a 25 percent tariff on imported U.S. goods such as pork, cranberries, bourbon and American steel. Mexico, Canada and the European Union were originally exempted from U.S. tariffs, but that privilege piddled out days before its May 31 deadline when Trump declared that he would prefer to renegotiate NAFTA with each member nation separately.
Canada, France and Japan have also recently drawn their own lines against the Trump administration’s aggressive metals duties.
American steel has thus far benefited from these tumultuous negotiations. But how will such an unpredictable and volatile environment affect manufacturing and agriculture in the near and distant future? Why is the president of the United States helping an adversarial foreign company at the expense of the industries that support the country he leads?
Where exactly do steel, manufacturing and agriculture fit into this administration’s end game? Is there an end game at all in the president’s plan?
Showing Urban Students That Ag is More Than Tractors and Cows
What big-city urban high school students (and their parents) know about agriculture comes mostly from the news and social media, often with a derisive perspective of farming and agribusiness. It is important that young people learn and understand what is going on in our industry. They hear a lot of negative comments about agricultural chemicals, GMOs and farming’s effect on pollinators and the environment. We are doing what we can to work with Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) to provide an opportunity for students to come inside an agribusiness and see how they can be involved in agriculture even if they don’t want to be a farmer.
Nufarm and other agribusinesses participate with the CHSAS to help provide its more than 700 urban students a positive perspective on agriculture and the professions and careers it provides. The school operates the only farm within the city of Chicago, a 40-acre tract adjacent to its campus. CHSAS has Illinois’ largest and the United States’ fifth largest FFA chapter.
We want to put out a positive message about what we really do. Students job shadow at our two Chicago-area facilities. They spend time learning about the business aspects of our company. We explain the role of marketing, regulatory, R&D and product testing.
“The most important part of the program is explaining the realities of agribusiness,” says Tim Birkel, Nufarm Americas vice president strategic markets and accounts. “Hopefully, we can have some people who are interested in a career in agriculture.”
As we are providing real-life experiences for their students, the school loves our participation. We have several activities and projects to involve students. Several years ago, we borrowed their planter to plant rows of sunflowers next to our fence along Interstate 294, a major corridor in Chicago. We talked about the importance of pollinators and how the seed industry is actively involved in efforts to protect and sustain them.
In another activity, students submitted designs along with a business plan for a garden according to a set of specifications we provided. We evaluated their designs and selected one which a landscaper then prepared and planted. This gave them experience in following a business plan from start to finish. We also help judge their annual science fair, which provides us an opportunity to interact with students on a variety of topics.
Feedback from the CHSAS, students and their parents has been enthusiastically positive. The students take home the positive realities that they hear about agriculture. Not all of the students will go into agricultural careers, but they will always take with them their high school experiences and what they learned about agriculture and agribusiness.
6 Reasons Why Farmers Should Avoid Treating Seed In-house
As farms increase in size and complexity, so does their ability to vertically integrate. With wheat, for example, this might mean processing, milling and sacking flour for distribution to retailers downstream. But when looking upstream, this might mean treating seed on farm.
Without doing much research or understanding that “precision” has also been adopted by the seed treatment industry, this might seem like a worthwhile investment, but there are six key reasons why farmers should consider leaving the application of seed treatments to seed retailers and distributors. These include the following.
Access to advanced seed treatment technology. Farmers might have difficulty acquiring the most recent seed treatment formulas and technologies. That’s one reason why generics are so popular. For example, recently a new seed treatment product was pulled from shelves, reportedly due to some rashes. Now this formulation is only to be applied in closed systems, ensuring that no one touches it and limiting it to only the more technologically advanced treaters.
Access to the latest equipment application techniques. The equipment sold to those who wish to treat on farm is often not the newest technology. Farmers who do this sacrifice automation and accuracy.
Access to customer service. For most, planting season is already a stressful time of the year, trying to ensure the crop gets in the ground as soon as weather conditions permit without incident. This can be a few hundred acres, but for many, it’s thousands of acres. If anything would go wrong in the seed treatment process, either an equipment breakdown or faulty application, who will be there to troubleshoot or make good? That, too, would now be in the hands of the farmer.
Disposal of leftover seed treatment chemicals. Many seed retailers and distributors do enough volume that leftovers can be returned to point of purchase; however, many farmers would not have the volumes needed to afford this service aspect.
Seed handling equipment. Unfortunately, most on-farm equipment is not designed for the most gentle handling of seed. Without special seed handling equipment, farmers increase the risk of damaging the seed. This could result in a lower germination rate, and ultimately a lower yield.
Stewardship. This is a word that has earned a great deal of attention for the seed treatment industry during the past decade. The industry has put in place best seed treatment practices to ensure proper stewardship. This means increased documentation, minimizing dust-off and increasing safety to both humans and the environment. Many on-farm systems do not easily meet these standards.
Remember: If you use advanced seed treatment equipment and demonstrate the benefits, farmers will see the value. You must first provide a good product and you must be able to articulate those benefits. If not, you risk losing a customer.
Tom Petty’s Advice for Entrepreneurs
In Tom Petty’s classic 1981 song Waiting, he sings, “the waiting is the hardest part.” I doubt he was talking about business, but his words do apply perfectly to pursuing new business opportunities. Waiting is a trait not many entrepreneurs have mastered. Yet, if used correctly, can be one of the most valuable.
First, I want to come clean and say that waiting is incredibly hard for me. I have a “driver” type personality and get energized by searching for and securing new business opportunities. Over the past few years, however, I have learned to appreciate the strategic value of waiting.
Waiting ≠ Doing Nothing
I used to think that waiting was akin to inaction, indecision or a lack of aggressiveness. I could not have been more wrong. Waiting can be one of the most effective negotiating tactics available, especially when the other party has time pressure. Waiting allows you to thoroughly vet an opportunity by checking more sources, following up on previously answered questions and do a deeper analysis of how the opportunity fits into your current business. It can also help you learn if other companies are pursuing the opportunity, whether it’s a new employee or an acquisition. Even if the opportunity is a perfect fit, the timing must also be right. Rather than pushing a deal through and hoping for the best, waiting can allow you to let the deal sit and build out your infrastructure to better support the acquisition or make the new hire.
When to Wait and When to Move
Learning how to strategically wait gives you a tool that many haven’t developed. The next key is understanding when to use this tool and when to move aggressively. Technology, consolidation and niche markets are driving changes at a rate the seed industry hasn’t seen. In this environment, waiting too long can cause you to lose the opportunity to a competitor.
Knowing in advance the dollar amount, geographic area or niches you can move on will allow you to quickly decide if waiting is a good strategy or not.
Each new opportunity requires evaluating which party benefits most by waiting and if waiting too long allows a competitor to win the opportunity. In closing, you can gain an advantage in every negotiation by viewing waiting as a strategic action rather than just a passage of time.
What is the Value of Having the Right Software?
Investing in software for your seed business is like investing in any other type of physical equipment, be that a new warehouse, treating/bagging plant or upgraded color sorter. You expect some return on investment to your business. With a new color sorter, you can easily measure the increase in volume or quality — the ROI is apparent and tangible. With software, it’s not as easy to measure, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot give the same return on investment.
With the right software, you could save 5 percent of people’s time across your business. A savings such as this would free up your staff to focus on servicing customers and being more productive with their time, because there are less non-productive, mundane, repetitive administrative tasks to perform and there is less wasted time in identifying and rectifying errors and mistakes. They say, “time is money.” It’s really what you do with your time that matters. The return is an increase in “money generating” time that adds directly to your bottom line.
The right software could help to eliminate 3 percent of lost or misplaced seed inventory every year. You would have 3 percent more inventory available to ship and invoice, and you would have reduced the direct losses in producing and processing. Software exists that can accurately track seed inventory from raw seed production to finished product identifies where the inventory is located in the warehouse and exactly where the inventory came from and where it has gone by recording each and every transaction affecting it. This would give you the level of visibility that you need to ensure nothing “goes missing.”
Software could help increase the number of shipments you can turn in a day by 10 percent. You can drive processes across your business in a consistent and effective way so that the decisions about which products to process and ship are streamlined. Tracking the various activities needed between the operations is automated. This gives you greater control over what needs to be ready, when and where. Tracking could effectively connect your business operations together so that you can do more with the same resources. Over time, it’s not uncommon for a business to be able to double the number of transactions it can execute without needing to add more people.
With the latest software you could increase sales by 4 percent. Having accurate data can help you analyze sales demand and customer activity. Using the data can help you better predict and prepare for customer demand. This will enable you to have what the customers need and when they will need it so that you can provide a quicker and more immediate response to drive up sales. You would also improve the level of service to your customers so that they keep coming back.
Investing in software is really an investment in your business’s future success. Make sure you spend the money wisely on a solution you know will help you grow your business.
People Don’t Want Science — They Want Stories!
In the past, I faced the challenge of trying to sway public opinion. I did lots of research finding stats and scientific studies to help make a case. I spent hours crafting messages for each different audience using the research as my inspiration. I had a comprehensive marketing-communications plan for sharing the message(s). Yet with all of the research, internal company dialogue, and work, the results were unimpressive.
Venting to a mentor, she gave me some of the best communications advice I have ever received. When emotion comes into play, facts matter less. I had been trying to sway opinions with facts, without recognizing the underlying emotions or experiences that form those opinions.
Opinions are deeply rooted in emotion and human experience. To sway opinions, one needs to move beyond facts; beyond science. To sway opinions, you need to consider the human element.
Agriculture is a perfect example. When communicating with the larger society, agriculture as an industry tends to focus on factual data and science. A scientific approach may work in some instances. However, if the goal is to change opinion we need to move beyond science. As an industry, we need to relate on a human-to-human basis.
Instead of spending a lot of time on how or what, as an industry we need to remind ourselves why. Why are we in agriculture; why do we do what we do? (And by why, I don’t mean to make a profit.) What is our purpose, and why should anyone care?
Basic universal human needs like food, clothing, and shelter are all provided through agriculture. By focusing on how or what from a scientific perspective, we’re creating a disassociation or distance with the audience. One of the best ways to move communications beyond science is through storytelling.
Stories provide the human connection. Stories humanize. With a good story the audience emerges itself within the story. Stories make us experience information. This is where the magic happens. Storytelling fosters perspective-taking and shifts opinions.
So, the next time you are trying to change a customer’s opinion, or having a discussion on the “state of agriculture” with someone who has a different opinion than you, consider telling a story.
Test Certificate — Seed’s Passport to Get Into Canada
International border crossings all have one thing in common: paperwork and plenty of government officials on the spot to make certain everything about that paperwork is complete and correct. Flying between the United States and Canada is usually a straight forward process. Present your passport, answer a few simple questions and those border guards are happy to send you on your way. No one really cares if your passport photo is the worst ever —your passport is your identification.
For seeds to cross the border between the United States and Canada they also must be accompanied by the proper paperwork — not a passport per se, but a seed test certificate issued by an accredited seed testing laboratory, which uses accepted testing procedures. My passport was issued by the U.S. Department of State. Seed test certificates for seed crossing the U.S.–Canadian border are issued by laboratories accredited by the Association of Official Seed Analysts (AOSA), the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists (SCST), and the Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada (CSAAC). Other parts of the world use the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA).
Throughout time, these three North American organizations have tried hard to “harmonize” their rules, meaning they have tried to keep them similar as to make life easier for everyone. Although the Canadian methods are remarkably similar to the rules used in the United States, the purity amount as well as how the test is reported is very important for a seed lot to be able to cross from the United States into Canada. Enough seed must be provided to the seed lab to satisfy the quantity requirement specified by Canadian Methods and Procedures, the standard operating procedure followed by the CSAAC. The required amount varies depending on the species being tested.
It is the seed shipper’s responsibility to submit the correct amount of seed for testing and to request the correct tests. If in doubt, ask your seed testing lab before submitting a sample. Providing the wrong amount of seed to be tested will cause one of those government officials to become very unhappy, refuse your certificate, and not allow your seed to enter Canada.
Is Your Business Yesterday’s Tractor Cab?
I was talking to one of our seed growers recently and he said, “My grandpa wouldn’t even recognize a tractor cab today!” I agreed, but also thought, even my childhood self wouldn’t recognize it!
It’s during planting season that I’m always reminded of how much agriculture and the seed business have evolved. Field mapping, nearly autonomous tractors, high-speed planters and equipment monitoring have made the farmer’s field one of the most high-tech places in the world. In a context I love to use, my grandpa farmed with horses and now we farm with information from space. It’s truly remarkable.
So what’s next? The point of this article isn’t to predict what the future will bring, but to drive home the point that the future will be different, and to succeed, your business will need to be different too.
Change Comes, Even if You Aren’t Ready
The next few years will see change at an unprecedented pace. The major mergers are all underway and a wave of new strategic alignments and relationships is likely to develop. The entire deck may be reshuffled. Ideas you once thought were impossible or ridiculous may now be the perfect strategy. Brainstorming “what if” scenarios, challenging the status quo and being able to move quick will likely define those who will win the future.
We don’t, however, always get to pick when change comes and what it looks like. New breeding techniques, like gene editing, are allowing companies all the over the world to invent new and improved hybrids and varieties. How might they approach the market and what could that mean for your business? How can you leverage your farmer relationships and local knowledge to take advantage of this?
Additionally, technology is changing the way seed is sold. Web-based startup companies are popping up and are introducing themselves to farmers on social media, rather than with a handshake. How can your company demonstrate the value of your local knowledge and relationship in the midst of the lure of Big Data?
So Get Ready!
While I can’t predict the future, I can offer this recommendation – get ready! Disrupters and disruption are emerging in every corner of the seed business and agriculture. Prepare your staff, suppliers and even your customers for the inevitability of change. New technology will continue to spur new market entrants, and the completion of the major mergers will drive new relationships and shifting alliances.
All of this means that even your childhood self may not recognize the seed business in a few years. Make sure you’re ready for it!
Limited Seed Treatment Tools Increase Importance of Stewardship
The modern crop-chemical registration process limits the number of available seed treatment tools and makes stewardship of existing tools even more important.
The increasing cost to obtain and maintain regulatory approvals for crop protection chemicals threatens to limit the introduction and retention of seed treatment pesticides.
By itself, seed treatment is a relatively small part of the overall global crop-protection market. The cost to develop a chemical for seed treatment alone would be prohibitively expensive. The expense and time to develop a new chemical pesticide — now estimated at $250 -$300 million and more than 10 years from laboratory to sale and distribution — requires wide market appeal for a manufacturer to achieve an acceptable return on their investment.
On top of the ever-increasing cost for new chemistry approval, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is deep in the process of reevaluating existing active ingredients which have been in use for many years. As part of this process, EPA looks at the current state of science, requires new studies, and finally re-screens all existing chemicals using new methods to estimate the risk from ongoing use. The reevaluation process culminates in an updated risk-benefit conclusion for each chemical.
The EPA’s risk-benefit analysis relies, in part, on computer models that simulate exposure to the chemical on several categories such as, honeybees foraging near a field being planted with treated seed, birds that may be exposed to treated seed left on open ground, and farmers who load a planter with treated seed. Manufacturers bear the cost of defending seed treatment chemicals.
The reevaluation process requires EPA to examine all incidents that have been reported during the past 10-15 years from alleged exposure to the chemical during its use. This is why stewardship and use in a manner that prevents unintended exposure is so very important to the future of seed treatments. If a seed treatment product would be withdrawn from the market following EPA’s reevaluation, there are few products in the development pipeline to replace it.
Because of the high cost for new registration and reevaluations, there is increasing interest by manufacturers in biologicals since the time needed to develop these products for seed treatment is much shorter. Toxicology and environmental study requirements are abbreviated, which means less development cost. The EPA and the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) have made provisions to encourage development of biorational products. These agencies have diminished the approval requirements from those that apply to conventional chemical products. One of the downsides is that biorational products are very specific in their use spectrum often targeting a limited range of pests. Conventional chemicals have much broader utility but face more intense scrutiny now and in the future.