The Best Investment You Can Make

The rush of the planting season is quickly upon us.  Some of us will ship up to 70% of our fertilizer tons during these 8 to 10 weeks.   Once the planting season is over, the post-spray period and side dress season will soon follow.  Once again, many fields will be serviced and work performed.

How does all get done?

By pick up, ten-wheeler, tractor trailer, nurse wagons, and field machines.  All used one day at a time.  Yesterday’s stellar pre-trip inspection will not make skipping today’s an option.

Make sure to check your equipment before you go over the road.  It will be the best 15

My favorite Dealer's Rep

minutes you will spend all day.  Not only is it a federal law, but in those minutes, you may very well notice the soft tire or the cracked rim.  You may see the dripping coolant leak or spot the faulty left-hand turn signal light.  That one detail could mean the difference between being stranded in a field or alongside a road,  Worse still, failing to catch and correct such things could cause the death of someone who didn’t think you were turning across traffic because they did not see your signal light because it was out.

A solid preventative maintenance program including and a certified mechanic on staff or a very good relationship with a local certified mechanic will go a long way to eliminate these surprises and keep your equipment legal in the eyes of the law before you even get to crunch time.  However, breakdowns in will still occur.  Do your part to prevent a breakdown from turning into an accident.  Being a professional is as much about taking care of things before putting the rig in “drive” as it is while you drive.

Have a safe spring rush!


Making the Right Choice

4R Pillars

Figure 1. The 4R’s Process (Right Source at the Right Rate at the Right Time at the Right Place) helps to protect the climate, air, and water.   Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada and eLearning.

What if I were to tell you that all the vegetables that were ever eaten, all the milk that was ever drunk, all the meat that was ever consumed and all the cereal, pizza, and bread was ever eaten was grown on something that relatively speaking is as thick as the skin of an apple.  Good farm ground will have three or more feet of this alive and active thing most of us call “dirt.”  It is what grows the stuff that comes out of your cereal box and supplies the nutrients for most of the food you eat, organic or not.  The soil is the dinner plate, holding the food that makes plants grow.  After a few years of use, soils begin to run low on nutrients and fertilizer is needed to continue to replenish these precious chemical compounds taken out by multiple years of use.  Before synthetic fertilizer was developed, many subsistence societies solved this problem by frequently moving in search of more fertile ground after intense soil use and nutrient depletion[i]. Additionally, our ancestors noticed that plants grew better near animal manure piles and so began to use manure as a natural fertilizer.  Frankly, this “dirt” has been doing such a good job that very few of us recognize its importance.  That is where our story begins.

A Farmer’s Dilemma – a hungry world’s demands


Our planet is thin skinned.  Photo by writer

The issue of food and environment has drawn much attention in recent years. Furthermore, balancing the needs of farmers, the environment, and society is not simple.  Many of us have never set foot on a farm, and just as many have never met a farmer.  All of us eat and ultimately put our trust in these “strangers” to provide the food sitting on our dining room table.

You and I have seen a lot of changes.   Technology has allowed us to do things at a much faster rate.  Advancements have made our lives easier and more efficient.  We have great flexibility which was non-existent just 30 years ago. While advanced technology has even become a mainstay in the agricultural industry, some basic biological and ecological principles remain unchanged.


Figure 2.  42,000 people directly help farmers in the USA with fertilizer needs.  Courtesy of

A corn plant which produces the kernels that constitute your cornflakes or feeds the cow that produces the milk in your yogurt still basically grows at the same rate that it did when your grandparents were young.   In other words, if the speed of a corn plant’s growth was compared to the speed of our lives today, it would be like watching a turtle race a car.  Consequently, these fundamental principles make farming in today’s circumstances a bit more challenging.

Consumer desires, political changes like Brexit, and falling profits all create added demands.  Farmers earn a relatively small proportion of your food dollar, and they operate businesses that require a lot of equipment and land.  Many work with the idea of selling their farms and equipment in order to pay for retirement.  Few new farmers are entering the market[ii].  Instead, other existing farmers acquire the business and expand.  Indeed, over 50% of American farmland and assets will probably change hands within the next ten years.  The ripple effect is felt all the way through to their suppliers, with less than 96,000 professionals in North America responsible for supplying the fertilizer required for food production[iii],[iv].  This is something our ancestors didn’t have to consider.


The cycles of crop life are still the same as centuries ago.  Photo by the writer.

With fewer farmers managing larger farms, the attention has become more focused on managing a business rather than conserving the most basic element of farming, the soil.  In other words, our methods were becoming a little out of synch with our principles.  A change was needed.  We needed to get back to some basics.

By all appearances, the nature and main purpose of the entire universe is to support life, especially human life, on this tiny speck of a planet”.  Celebrating the Wonder of Soil, Discovery Series of RBC Ministries[v]


The 4R’s of fertilizer and multi-vitamins 



Multi vitamin

Figure 3. Just like vitamins, not all fertilizers are the same

As farm sizes grew substantially larger and farm labor shrunk, decisions on how to use fertilizer were made with limited information for the stewardly use of fields, fertilizer, and the environment[vi].   However, over the past few years, technologies have allowed us to break down the decision-making process and not have a “one size fits all approach” to making good decisions.  Think of it this way:  If you are someone who is looking for a general dietary supplement, you may consider taking a multi-vitamin.  We know that some specific problems can’t be corrected by general supplementation, because you may need a more specific vitamin or mineral.  The same is true about fields.  Fields are made up of unique soils, and what works in one field may not work in another.  Furthermore, what works in one corner of a field may not work in the other corner.  Farmers needed a way to precisely determine what nutrients were lacking in very specific parts of their fields, and the result was a process called site-specific soil sampling.   Now, how many samples are taken on farm fields?  Take a guess…….Remember how I mentioned the whole technology thing?  In 2001 just over 2 million soil samples were taken from farmers’ fields in North America.  Today, we have in excess of 7.5 MILLION soil samples taken each year for farmers of the United States and Canada[vii].  This is only possible because of technological advances too numerous to explain.  A result is a tool which the farmer and the agricultural professional can use to make fertilizer decisions for every single acre they farm if such accuracy is desired.  However, fertilizer is just one part of a much more complicated decision-making process.  To help organize that process the agricultural community developed The 4R Concept of the Right Source at the Right Rate for the Right Time at the Right Place [viii].


The interactiPEI 4R Trainingon between farmer, crops, and soil is very delicate, and we have started to see what happens when it gets out of whack[ix],[x].  Food production has been pushed to its limits because consumers want more food as cheaply as possible.  Something has to pay for our pushiness, and in the process, the soil becomes eroded and pollutes our aquatic resources[xi].  In order to prevent these issues, the agricultural community has adapted its decision-making process and called it the 4Rs for Nutrient Stewardship.  The Province of Prince Edward Island was the first province to subscribe to the 4R Principles in 2012[xii].  It seems only fitting that “The Island of Food” for Canada was first to recognize the importance of 4R[xiii].  Having taken this course, I can say it is very well written and does an excellent job in explaining the 4R Principles.

The Right Rate of the Right Fertilizer applied at the Right Time at the Right Place on the field.

When decisions are made in this context, we begin to see opportunities for changes in how we farm.  A more holistic approach is considered and in the process, we bring back into focus the more long term issues that are important to be able to sustain life[xiv]. There are advantages to this decision-making tool for all of us.


Figure 5.  The 4R Nutrient Stewardship concept defines the Right Source, Rate, Time and Place for fertilizer applications as those producing the economic, environmental, and social outcomes desired by the stakeholders of the planet’s ecosystem.  Courtesy of

First, the process is very ADAPTABLE.  We recognize that the right ways vary from farm to farm, and field to field.  Think of fields like people: we can categorize the soils into some basic types, but every field has certain unique qualities.  Consequently, the 4R principles can be successfully applied to farms all around the world.  Perhaps more importantly, the process will adapt to the needs of today as well as tomorrow.

Secondly, it is NONDISCRIMINATORY.  It allows all methods of farming to benefit from its use.  It draws no assumptions as to what type of farm or how resources are used.  When considering the 4R methods, one word comes into focus: “transparency”.  All farmers regardless of size or type of farming need to be stewardly.  Size doesn’t matter to effectively use the 4R concept[xv].

size doesn't matter

Size of farm doesn’t matter in the use of the 4R’s

Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.

Finally, it is HOLISTIC.  The decision process of 4R will consider all aspects of food and farming.  This holistic approach allows stakeholders from all areas of the food chain….farmer, supplier, food processor, and grocery store to get involved.  It identifies Garth Whytethe best management practices across the entire farm operation.  As Garth Whyte, President & CEO of Fertilizer Canada said, “the 4R’s bridge the environment, the world, and farmers legacy”[xvi].  Perhaps Lynn Warriner of Blenheim, Ontario, described it best when she said that 4R allows her to be a “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around their farm”. Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.


Lynn Warriner

Figure 7.  Lynn Warriner says that 4R enables their farm to be “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around our farm”  (Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada)

Food knows no borders.  National boundaries may influence trade, but they do not change the interaction of farmers and the land.  It reminds me what a gentleman from an equipment dealership in Lethbridge, Alberta, once told me.  He said, “You know the only thing that separates the plains of Montana from Alberta is a line in the sand.”  That speaks volumes to how “international” farming really is.  Who is behind all of this?  There are many, too many to list.  With the help of organizations, farmers, farm suppliers, universities, government agencies, private foundations, and food manufacturers, a network of sustainable agricultural professionals is growing.  It sounds to me like that old saying, “Many hands make light work.”


Washington Quote

Figure 8.  Slide is taken from Prof. David R. Montgomery presentation on societies and soil erosion.




Writers note:  I want to say “thank you” to all those whom I have cited in this article.  Unfortunately, much more can be considered and there are many more resources that could be explored if you want to delve deeper.  I am truly thankful to be able to write about the subject of food, farming, and environmental security.  Thank you!


















Nothing Cures Low Prices Like…..Crop Rotations??

It is certainly not glamorous and it surely isn’t very sexy, but it just may be what could be the safest and permanent cure to low crop prices and help to spread out the environmental risks associated with heavy dependency on just a few crops for farm revenue and a subsidy program that by design concentrates farming businesses.

For those readers who are intimately aware of farming issues, I realize that stretching out crop rotations to four or more years can be difficult for certain types of farms.  Dairy, poultry, and hog operations come to mind.  Farms with higher animal populations tend to have capital budgeted toward animals, equipment, and buildings and they cannot afford to have the land base that allows longer cropping rotations.   Furthermore, transportation of manure can become another issue when transport can be upwards of 20 miles one way.

What about grain farms?

The grain farmer tends to not have as many revenue options.  Some farms have been a corn only type of business.  Others will be a corn and soybean program with maybe wheat or some other grain in between.   Just two generations ago, it was not uncommon for a typical farm[1] to have a four-year rotation that consisted of corn, oats, and some sort of hay crop.  Soybeans came into the mix as our markets became more global and soybean breeding improved.  What was a four or even five-year crop rotation became three years.  Today, that has shrunk to two years or no crop rotation.  Every year or every other year the grain farmer relies on the price of one item to make or break an entire farming operation that possibly affects up to several thousand acres.  We don’t even have a basket to put all of our eggs in when we rely on one crop to survive.

Farming is Messy.

Farming is a messy business.  It deals with so many variables that we can’t begin to predict how it will end this year let alone next year.  Because of that farmers do need some sort of protection from the rest of us.  Sure, farm programs cost money…. a lot of it.  However, relatively speaking, it is not that much when you consider what we get in return.  Have you looked at your food bill lately[2]?  It’s cheap when compared to every other nation on the planet[3].  However, that does not mean we can afford to keep doing it the way we have been doing it for the past 60 years.  Like I said, farming is messy.

Farming deals in living systems.

Farmers and those who supply them are a lot like doctors in that they deal with living organisms.  Calves are born, sows give birth, and a grain farmer earnestly studies the weather, soil, and forecasts to determine the optimum planting time for that living organism we call a seed to be put into that hostile environment called “soil”.  They hope that it can sprout and grow a crop that can provide feed or income for another year.  Do you work in a profession that makes its living from the successful interaction with living creatures every day?  Sadly, we have lost touch with that special bond that occurs when you help deliver a calf or reach down into the soil, dig it up and smell it to see how healthy it is.  Farming and those who supply them, cannot afford to work in a business environment that is constantly changing.  Consistency is key for slow, thoughtful change.  However, as we have seen, our living systems are not doing so well at adjusting to our current methods of farming.  Nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and certain species shifts in pests as well as beneficial species on land and water, are showing signs of prolonged stress and inability to adapt.

It’s time to rotate.

Candidly, farming as it is currently structured in the United States today, is juxtaposed to what other parts of our economy need.  We have a farming economy built around a small basket of products.  The United States and Brazil account for 80% of all soybean exports in the world and our second largest product we sell to China.[4],[5]  Is it time to rotate away from some of that?  Rotations spread out risk.  They spread out risk to environment and risk to adverse economic environments.  We must find ways to incentivize longer rotations with suitable alternative crops and the investments that will be needed.    Crop rotations are a slow process, that builds stability for the farm economy and for the soil[6].   The investments will be substantial and take several years to begin to see results.  The farming community is caught in an economic pinch with 2017 being a key year to see if we are indeed headed into a farm recession[7],[8],[9].  Perhaps we can forgo any new programs and simply emphasize ones that are already in place.  In fact, I know we can for there have been programs in place to encourage alternative crops for years.  Furthermore, monies not used due to less commodity subsidization can be diverted to help support longer field rotation programs.  With the 4R initiative and the renaissance that is emerging about soil health, maybe it’s time to begin to structure some of our short rotation corn and soybean acres to include regionally focused crop rotation partners that will spur local and regional based markets.

Rotations help to bring vitality back into a local farming community.

Indeed, many of these communities are in a negative growth situation.  While tax revenues increase in other areas, the smaller, rural towns are experiencing a trend of negative tax revenues[10].  Who will pay to keep the lights on in city hall?  It is a way of investing money into new equipment and new methods with the local shops and homes of farm laborers.  It also can be a great support to the local banks that according to the University of Nebraska, are evaporating away[11].  Meanwhile, it helps to insulate farmers and farm income from frequent and strong year over year currency swings which they have absolutely no control over and their crop income becomes collateral damage in some greater currency imbalance.

Perhaps the most troubling challenge of all is the derivative effect that currency valuations have on crop prices.  Candidly, this leaves many farmers, and our nations’ food security, in a precarious situation.  Currency markets have a strong impact on the export market.  Work out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City shows that land values increased by as much as 30% due to strong export and ethanol markets that simultaneously impacted the grain markets and therefore caused the land to become more valuable[12].  Such rapid variances are very hard to manage.   Dean Heffta of Water Street Solutions, in his BASF Grow Smart University webinar entitled, “Monetary Policy and Currency Impact on Agriculture”, the Federal Reserve is basically charged with two primary tasks.  First, manage inflation at a level of around 2% and, secondly, to promote job creation.[13]  This means that we will need to perhaps our currency at a value like what we see today to keep money flowing into our economy from other nations.  For point of reference, the currency values we see today are like what we had back in the early 2000’s, those were times when ag exports suffered from a strong dollar[14].  Divergent monetary policies spark currency reactions from other nations and those currency reactions also strongly affect the fertilizer markets and less so pesticides and seed.

Where is agriculture going to be in the years to come?  Look around and you will see, mergers and acquisitions point to a desire to be prepared in a defensive posture for uncertainty and instability that more likely than not is going to come.  The traditional subsidy programs we are used to are mostly geared toward a stable currency environment when the U.S. dollar was more prominent.  Those days have changed and those subsidies many not be as appropriate considering current events and the biological impact that short rotations have[15].  A farmer can begin to spread out risk and stabilize farm income by having multiple crops to take to market.  The sort cropping rotations, consumer demands, world currency markets, and a nation in flux all point to a need for farming to place safeguards into place that are intrinsically based on the crops produced.  Now is the time to spread out rotations.
















Show Me Your’s and I’ll Show You Mine

“But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”  James 2:18

I write to bring into focus some events that are around us, right now.  As I write it forces me to reflect on my own choices and views.  I am not taking a cheap shot at any one person or viewpoint.  For those of us who would claim to be in the “family of Christ” do we consider what is happening?  What will you do once you know more?  Ignorance is bliss, so they say.  But if you choose to remain ignorant of the issues, then how will you be salt and light to those who desperately need to see a Christian who “works through their faith with fear and trembling”?

If you have followed me at all, you will come to see I view things from a food and farming perspective.  It is a humbling profession because you learn that you have little control over the things that greatly affect your job, family, and career.  Farmers, and those who supply them, interact with an entire ecosystem that is increasingly being shown to be powerful, awesome and yet finely balanced to the point that what is done hundreds of miles away can have a very powerful, and sometimes negative, impact on others…. especially when the ecosystem can’t buffer the problem due to overuse.

So, it is with this view, that I ask myself and fellow believers in Christ, “show me your deeds”.

Considering our impact on God’s Creation, what are you doing to demonstrate your stewardship, as the one put above the rest of creation?  Do we abdicate our responsibility willingly or without thought?  We have a food and farm system that is growing more and more condensed with the need for more and more migrant workers to do field work.  Undocumented workers have become a major social issue in some farming communities here in the United States.  Everyone is quick to point out the threat to the “homeland” about potential bad people being in these groups.  Along with this, how about the fact that these folks are not on the grid as far as safety and health is concerned?  I am not saying that farmers who hire such workers are bad people.  Yes, if they knowingly do it then they are breaking the law.  The undocumented worker harvests a surprising amount of the produce you buy in the grocery store.  Do you do your homework to see how these immigration issues can be resolved or do you simply cry, “Ship them all back.”  If you do the latter, will you be willing to support a farming system that insists on more domestic labor with you paying a little more for your food?

We see and read more and more about water quality and environmental issues and how they possibly relate to things we do.  Do you consider and study these items through?  As a follower of Christ do you consider how the society you live in and your own opinions and actions impact these Creation related items?

Typically, Christians tend to look sideways at those who would be called “naturalists” or more deridingly “tree huggers”.  Sadly, when it comes to James 2:18 and how Christians are to prove themselves through their actions, we fail when it comes to having and behaving in an informed and stewardly manner when it comes to issues such as food, farming, forestry, waterways, and conservation.  If it comes to acting and building awareness about creation, our “naturalist” friends are more creation aware than many Christians today.  We will speak out on government issues and cry for freedom, but what about starting to consider issues of Creation, society, and stewardship for the next few months or years or your life?  As you begin to consider these things you will soon begin to see that all is not as it should be.  We don’t necessarily need more laws and we shouldn’t have undocumented workers.  As members of Christ’s body, we had then better start considering ways in which we can become the salt and light of a broken world when it comes to proper stewardship of resources and fellow man.  Ask yourself, “How do I vote with my wallet?”  Do you always shop for price or do you consider how your food was grown and try to consider supporting more ethical methods of production?  We certainly can’t complain that we pay too much for food already when compared to other nations.  I am NOT discounting the hardships of those who truly are too poor to buy healthy food.  I am stating that as far as a nation goes, we are the wealthiest and we pay the least for our food of any nation on this planet.  Per work done at Washington State University, we spend on average 6.8% of our annual household income on food.  The next closest nation is Canada as 9.1%

It’s a topic few in Christian circles talk about.  We in America rarely hear anything about the Bible and farming or Creation and conservation.  I think that is a sad testimony to our lack of understanding of just how powerful and creative our God truly is.  When it comes to acting in consideration of Creation, our naturalist friends are far more respectful than we are.  Their actions speak for their cause.  Unfortunately, many of them worship the creation.  Sadly, we claim to worship the Creator while we ignore the creation.

If this has stirred you in some fashion, consider these few resources below for further consideration and contemplation.  When you begin to eat your next meal, take the time to consider the scope of this.  You will soon find yourself digging deeper into God’s word for further study, and that is a good thing.





Social(ism) of Food?

Socialism of food (the gift of breaking bread)

An interesting trend that I have come to notice is that in areas with a great abundance of wealth and natural assets, a cultural shift takes place.  In the land “flowing with milk and honey” we tend to forget about what it is we have and, instead, focus on what it is we don’t have.

If you read many of my blogs you know that I am food and farming focused.  In my view of things, we all need to eat and that means food must be pretty important.  So, why not consider those things that are most important to us and make sure we focus on that first before we reach for so many other things that are not as important?

It is no surprise to anyone who follows farming and agriculture here in the United States that we are on a rather dire path that few talk about.  The rapid decline of the farming population and consequently the consolidation of land, and production methods to not only maintain but increase productivity is causing the system to undergo some rather long-term strains in the realm of the environment and the overall farm social scene.

Amplification Effect

Before I go any farther, I want to first say that this blog is NOT a IMG_0712 criticism or judgment against anyone or any one group.  I have spent 30 years in the business of helping farmers and suppliers raise crops and my own actions have probably supplied hundreds of thousands of people, and animals spread across a continent.  That is the amplification effect that anyone one has who is in the business of supplying farmers.  The person operating the drag line in this picture must affect the productivity of millions of acres during their career as a drag line operator digging the ore to produce phosphorous fertilizer.  That is truly an Amplification Effect!  I invite you to revisit my blog on the challenges and involved.  This is not meant to be a criticism to these folks and their employers.  Rather, this is simply my lifetimes worth of experience and observations.

It is simple economics that tells us that as we get more and more of something available, the value will seek a lower level.  Hillsdale College offers a great course on the basics of economics, and best of all, it’s high quality and free.  (Thanks, Hillsdale!)  So, for those of us blessed with the abundance of farmland, we have found ourselves slowly losing sight of those things that we are blessed with…food.  Less perceived value drives the market to a cheaper price and so it goes.  In the process, we lose our farming population, farms get bigger, production increases and more is produced with fewer people producing it.  In the process, average household incomes for the farms that are larger scale is consistently higher than the average American family income.  These numbers, while accurate, can so be somewhat misleading.  A 2016 report from Canada shows that while the average Canadian farm family has an annual income in excess of $110,000 the farm only provides about $20,000 and the rest comes from

farmer, farming, agriculture, food, garden

Who Will Hear Farming’s Call in the United States?

businesses that are not of the farm.  Here in America, this kind of information can be problematic when the consumers and taxpayers hear about subsidies for farming.  Especially as our government slowly changes from a Republic to a full blown democracy and the minority loses the protection of their individual rights.  Hence, another side of socialism may present itself in the realm of food in the United States in years to come.  Will we be ready with sound policies in the ways of food and farming?

Crossing a line

Like it or not, we have crossed a line.  And the consumer has noticed it.  In the land of milk and honey, we have somehow crossed over an imaginary line in the mind of the consumer.  The realm of social media is a powerful outlet for those companies that supply the consumer with the foods they want. And those suppliers are listening.  And, we as an industry sometimes bristle at the infringement on our ability to do our job.  We work like dogs to supply the food to a buyer who is starting to balk at what it is we offer.  And, as government officials read the reports, and listen to the constituents who far outnumber the farming community, some very powerful tools that are already in place could be used against an ever shrinking segment of society.  One that is most troubling is the FBI now heading up animal cruelty investigations.  I am NOT for the mistreatment of animals.  Quite the contrary, I strongly support the calling of Man by God in Genesis to be the steward of Creation.  However, I must also point out that the term “humane treatment” means being treated like a human.  And this is not in line with my view of creation relative to man.  God called Man to be higher than the rest of creation, not its equal.

The industry of food has also entered the realm of food production and is backing it up with money to boot.  General Mills, Dannon Yogurt, Kellogg, Walton FoundationUnilever,  Campbell’s along with others are all stepping into the realm of food production.  Remember the social media link I shared earlier?  That powerful tool is what is connecting all of us and making food a social event.  The issues of farm employees and farm labor is also becoming more of a social issue that we have not seen since the days of the milk riots by dairy farmers over 80 years ago.  The farm industry starves for labor and is the only industry that has an expedited labor immigration program.  However, the awkward truth is that the farm sector is still one of the ones with a high level of illegal immigarnts.  It is reported that up to 52% of these workers are illegal imigrants.  With the current farm wage being at levels that are 20 years behind the current average wage, the industry finds itself becoming the target of some rather awkward social reforms relative to the formation of organized labor.  Will we as a society be ready for the amplified consequences?  Think about this:  if 52% of those harvesting your food were told to get out of our nation immediately, who will take the place of those million or so workers?  Do any of you reading this article want to take their place?

We in the United States are used to spending the least amount of money on food of anyone in the world and yet are the most affluent.  How willing will we be to spend more of our own money so that the farmer can pay these employees more so that they can become legalized workers?  With farming having a relatively low number of non-family employees relative to other industries, the politicians could find that it is easier to go along with the sentiment to allow collective bargaining for farm employees at the expense of the farmers especially when the laws are written in states with a very small farmer population.  Will we be ready for the ripple effect?  It may mean not going to as many sporting events or forgoing a few other enjoyments.

The Breaking of Bread

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe breaking of bread and sharing of intimate moments around food is a very powerful experience.  It signifies friendship, common interests, mutual understanding, or a desire to learn more.  In many parts of the world, it is the wife or woman of the family unit that is in charge of farming and food production.  That is foreign to us in the United States.  Except for those who are delving into the realm of CSA’s, and localized micro farms.  Over half a billion woman are involved in agriculture in the world.  In Asia and South Africa, 50% or more of the female population is involved in farming.  I believe this speaks volumes as to the strong bond between woman and child in the family.  In areas that are not as rich with goods, services, and wealth, woman are vital to food production.  They seek the help of each other and develop strong and often successful networks to help them succeed as reported in the study of 63 such support groups in Kenya, Africa.  I believe it is no small coincidence that the one who brings new life into the world finds such a close attachment to the nurturing of crops and animals.

A Timeless Lesson

This trend is even carrying over to regions like New Brunswick, Canada.  It is reported that 55% of all new farmers are females.  Here in the United states, less than 300,000 women are now principal owners of a farm.   While the American woman may not be farming, she has a curiosity about it.  According to this report, ethics is what is driving the consumer, not necessarily the farmer being able to be profitable and provide what they want.  I believe it is no small coincidence that female consumers while not necessarily farming themselves, is becoming much more aware of the ways of farming by starting small part-time farms that provide a way of education for children and food for family and local customers…from Kenya to France to New Brunswick to North Carolina and anywhere a mother feeds a family.  They chose how to invest their money in the food they buy.  Herein lies the rub for American farmers.  They find themselves with a market that is changing all around and new neighbors with new views on what is important.  Caught between a mix of government policies, consumer demands, labor and economic challenges, they do not finding much stability in today’s farming world.

What will become of all of this?

What are we to make of this?  This is going to have an effect of every one of us.  The wishes of the consumer drive the food supplier and the consumer and lobbyists drive the politician.  Meanwhile, the men and women of the agronomy retail industry find themselves adapting and changing.  The breaking of bread has become something we in America have taken for granted and a system of farming and suppliers has kept us fed for a very low price.  But can we continue to do so at such a cheap price?  Winds of change are blowing in from various directions.  Some winds that are not always magnanimous but rather self-serving.  That is what concerns me.  I read a lot and pay attention to trends.  The trends I see in motion are not all so rosy.  Technology is a definite tool with massive power capable of helping all farmers make complicated decisions.  With such a tool comes an equal level of responsibility.  There will be special interest groups that seek to create chaos that will not always be the best for a stable food system.  Food is the common ring that binds all men together and those who look to exert their own selfish desire on others know that.  Nations and tribes have gone to war over such things.  Will those in positions of responsibility and power be able to sort through the tares and wheat to find what is true and best for a hungry nation while preserving the environment?  What will we do to support those who feed us?  Will we as a nation be willing to put our money where our mouth is and pay a little more to have food that allows the farmer to pay a little more for farm labor and sustainable farming practices?  It will require some attitudinal changes, and quickly, I fear.

The stakes are life changing.  The fate of regions and nations hangs in such things.

Thanks for reading!

The 4R Opportunity

To change anything it takes a force that is able to overcome the momentum that is currently in motion.  The industry has been driven by a complicated mix of demand, economics, and policy.  This led to a yield-driven model of farming.  Many times quantity trumps quality.  In the process, those items that have the least representation, like water quality, get ignored.  Speaking from experience, I am convinced that the agricultural industry has some of the most environmentally aware people you will ever meet.  They do not want to harm the streams we fish or the waterfowl we hunt.  As I wrote about the Balancing Act, there is a very real demand placed upon those in the industry.  You have partners who are becoming advocates and this needs to be cultivated.  Implementing a split application approach based on the 4R’s shows the rest of society that retailers do indeed care about this planet that we all call home.

To gain enough force we need to look to working with the CropLife 100 Group.   I see that this is already being done in places like The Big Pine Watershed.  Retailers look to suppliers for assistance.  With the cooperation of Fertilizer Canada, IPNI and TFI  I would say we are well on our way to gaining the momentum needed.  These industry groups provide a platform for many of the manufacturers of today’s manmade N sources, as well as potential new products.  Such efforts cannot be limited to a select group or agenda other than the development of the 4R’s for Nitrogen and the advancement of water quality improvement.  All nitrogen sources must be considered so that an organized and coherent effort can be developed as all can impact the goal of effective 4R Nitrogen plans.

The industry is very used to adaptation and when it determines that change must be made it begins moving toward the goal.  Some changes take time.  The change of Right Time for nitrogen application is inter-related to the rest of the 4R’s of Right Source, Rate, and Place.  This involves a mix of technology, investment, and planning.  The technology cycle is adapting the quickest of all.  This is to be expected because it cycles the fastest of all the systems.  This is a challenge when cropping and business cycles are at the same cycling times as they have been for generations.  The Right Time window can be extremely narrow and this could be difficult to manage.  Technology advancements in the areas of Nutrient Management, Water Stewardship and Field Management must be championed.  I believe much of the work has already been done by those in the industry, government, and academia to make better N recommendations based on localized situations and improved use of different N sources….some old and others not yet developed.  This is where the need to cooperate with groups like American Society of Agronomy as its vast network of experience crosses over many organizational boundaries.  In doing so, the professionals of the industry get to publically step out and show their personal dedication.  We must champion better adaption to localized weather patterns.  Sound nitrogen management is dependent upon understanding a complex set of interacting systems at the field level.

This is a very aggressive agenda.  It is complex, just as complex as the nitrogen cycle that we look to work with and not against.  We need to all the above-mentioned sources in building awareness in the advancement of the 4R’s for Nitrogen and split applications.  “Don’t make it Africa, don’t make it a race issue, make it a local issue and do prevention at each place” Hans Rosling on Ted Talks speaking about world issues in reference to AIDS and how to attack the problem at 17:15 and onward.  I believe the same view applies to farming, fertilizer retailing and the environment.  This needs to be brought to the local level for local solutions that really are field specific.

Here are some links by category to items that have some sort of impact on nitrogen management when one consider’s the 4R Concepts.  They are in no particular order or preference.  This is not even close to being complete at all crops need nitrogen for proper growth.  Rather, they do show how thorough a job the 4R’s deal with a host of items.

Thanks for reading!





Cover Crop


N Sources

Precision Tools


Much more……


Nitrous Oxide



The 700 mile Journey

mark-twain-on-power-of-mississippiThis is a story about a river, the power of water and one guy’s trip across a whole lot of ground over the course of a year.

One day my wife and I were traveling north from Western Pennsylvania bound for New York.  I decided to take some less traveled roads home, and with the help of my GPS, I was on roads that took me back in time: small towns, old gas stations, and closed general stores.  Technology has an ironic way of acting like a time machine, guiding you by satellite to areas which, in history, probably had great local significance but are currently quite forgotten.  We found ourselves coming out of a stretch of back roads to a hard corner around a small Northwestern Pennsylvania dairy farm.  A bridge loomed ahead.  It was one of the hundreds you see when crossing a small, off-the-beaten path-stream.  It had a small blue sign with white letters, and being the curious sort, I had to find out the name of the stream.

It was the Allegheny River.


The Allegheny River, part of the great river network constituting the Mississippi River Watershed

I immediately hit the brakes and slowed down.  “Nah, it can’t be,” I told myself, and I looked for a place to turn around and go back.  It only took me two seconds to cross the bridge because the stream was that small.  I found a place, turned around and sure enough, it was the Allegheny River.  With my wife’s encouragement, I took a picture to commemorate the moment.  During the rest of the drive, I began thinking about connections and networks.  I began to think about the human body and the different parts: I thought about things like veins and arteries and how they connect to feed the entire body from head to toe. I also thought about how we are all socially connected today via Google, Facebook, and other social media outlets.

In May of 2015, my wife and I had the pleasure of going to Cape Girardeau, Missouri to attend our son’s graduation.  In the process, we got to encounter God’s wondrous creation of some of the most venerated bodies of water in the United States.  We came in contact with the Wabash, the Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers.  On our return trip home, we decided to skirt Lake Erie for good measure and began to experience the immense size and scope of our Intracoastal Waterway System.  These rivers and lakes from the watery arteries and organs that transport goods and services throughout the United States.  Here are some staggering facts as to the scope and importance of just one member of this system: the Mississippi River.

With the Flood of 2011, humankind continued to display an amazing ability to manage large rivers.  During an 80 year period, engineers studied, planned, dug, and built systems to help control a river that discharges over 4,000,000 gallons of water per second or 2,400,000,000 gallons per minute.  In 2011, a disaster of monumental proportions was averted. Unfortunately, another disaster is currently brewing, bringing our story back to New York.

Unsurprisingly, my views on river systems began to take shape during these two road trips.  Food and farming must have rivers and lakes for transportation purposes, and these waterways must be maintained or face destruction. Improper care and management leads to ecologically sterile systems and transforms them into big pools of muck and mire  (much like the Conowingo Reservoir on the Susquehanna River, the last impoundment before the river enters the Chesapeake Bay).  In the past 20 years, the effects of farming on riverine ecosystems have become the center of attention with the Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom of 2014 and 2015. These two events are the most recent reminders that while we depend on aquatic systems for successful commercial endeavors, waterways depend on us for their effectual management and sustainable utilization (e.g., crop irrigation and drink water).  For example, while nutrients are critical for successful plant growth, excessive runoff can drastically change aquatic ecosystems by altering vegetation density and creating anoxic (oxygen-less) environments through increased algal growth and eventual decomposition.  Agronomists have known that different types and methods of nitrogen application result in varying crop utilization rates.  Therefore, our objective as members of the agricultural community should be in practicing sustainable methods which have minimal impacts on our environment.

While much attention has been granted to advances in areas such as information and communications technologies, we also need to focus on protecting our ecosystems.  For example, farmers need to consider how their production techniques along riparian zones impact aquatic systems (such as where they let cows or hogs go to water).  I know, you may be thinking, “But it’s just a small hog farm with 50 sows and a couple of boars. What’s the big deal?”  What I learned is that the headwaters of the Allegheny ultimately form a mighty river.  If the public majority has a negative attitude at the “headwaters” then how can we expect anything different downstream?  When it comes to attitudes, size doesn’t matter.   Unfortunately, municipalities also find themselves contributing to the nitrogen load.  Residents in the Riverhead, Long Island area witnessed the effects of dumping wastewater into the East End Bay.  Algal blooms formed due to elevated nitrogen levels from the waste water, resulting in reduced water quality in areas home to native scallop populations.  The Nature Conservancy and other groups brought this into focus with a proposal to have 10,000 acres of ground set aside for an Open Space program intended to protect aquatic ecosystems.  A program would be put in place to provide homeowners a rebate for upgrading their wastewater treatment systems.

If you can travel the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway 401 and Trans-Canada Rt. 20, it is worth your trip. These highways will take you through a river valley that is unique and picture worthy with huge rock boulders appearing out of nowhere carved millennia ago when the landscape was much different. It’s a beautiful stretch of waterway with a beauty unique unto itself.  It is through these waters that much of Canada’s agriculture from Quebec, Ontario, and even parts of Manitoba is sent to markets around the world.  The International Joint Commission, a commission created to manage the boundary waters between Canada and the United States, recently adopted a plan to make slight alterations to the water management plan of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario waterways so that flow rates resemble natural seasonal schedules of ebb and flow.  It was a 15-year project that involved the sovereign bodies of tribes, nations, and municipalities and included the input of hunters, fishermen, private citizens and industry (most notably the shipping industry).  With this slight change, over 64,000 acres of wetlands will be restored and millions of dollars in outdoor revenues will be reaped in the local communities.

We, in the United States, are either very blessed or just plain lucky, depending on your point of views.  Being a Creationist, I say we are very blessed.  We are blessed with immense natural resources and beautiful landscapes.  The Mississippi River Region has some of the most intensive corn and soybean farming in the world. The soils and the vitality contained in them have

rivers, intracoastal, waterway

Courtesy of U.S. Army Corp of Engineers


Courtesy of the USDA

The vital U.S. Intracoastal Waterway System compared to the market value of farming.  Notice the strong correlations.

given us a lucrative bounty of harvest, creating much wealth. There is no shame in exploiting natural resources.  That may shock some people for the word “exploit” has gotten a bad connotation, but it simply means to make use of what one has been given.  We need to exploit these precious resources, but not abuse them.  The speed at which the Mississippi flows at its mouth at New Orleans is about 1.2 miles per hour.  Not too fast is it? Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for our decisions to impact rivers.   It may not seem not too fast, but when they come into sight it’s a big deal.

When I crossed the Allegheny River in Western New York, the water in it was destined to go past Cape Girardeau, Missouri.  If the Mississippi flows over 4,000,000 gallons of water per second, this part of the Allegheny flows barely 200 gallons per second.  While these streams may be comparatively small, they all create one immense river. Sounds pretty similar to the old saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Do I have all the answers or solutions?  No, but these issues are surfacing and gaining

traction.  Just as the flow of the river is slow, so are changes to agriculture.  With a farm economy that is so fine tuned to the economics of food and national policy, it takes us a while to remember how profound of an effect we have on “The River” and all that lives in it.  The 4R Stewardship Program is certainly a powerful tool that will incorporate the best practices for utilizing fertilizer for our farmland and helping to keep soil in its place through practices that make sense for the local area. Our size and abundant resources are our tremendous strengths, but also our biggest banes. Take a smaller sovereign entity like Nova Scotia, for example.  With a similar abundance of natural resources on a much smaller scale, the relationship between land and water is easier to grasp.  Watch this video from this oysterman and his view on the interaction between land and sea.  To scoff at such insight is to scoff at our own natural resources and how we choose to exploit them.  Our EPA is aware of such interactions with the final test guidelines for Guidelines for Aquatic and Sediment Dwelling Fauna published on January 12, 2017


“We all in the industry realize if we don’t have a good environment we can’t survive”, Charles Purdy, Bay Enterprises, Ltd.


For those of us who take these things seriously and want to get a broader perspective on the interaction between man, world, food, and farming might I suggest a recently published book from SARE, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (a department of the USDA), on the tightly woven connection between all of us when we sit down to eat our meals.

I want everyone who would ever read or hear about this article to know that I don’t have an ax to grind or an agenda against farming because I love those who farm and supply farmers.  Instead, I write to give a balanced view based on what I know and where I see our society and nation going.  Indeed, water and all its life-giving properties are vital to the stability of all humankind.

Thanks for reading!

Here are further references.  However, much more are available for your studies.$FILE/IssueReview-EN-14063.pdf

“So what’s your price?”

I wanted to write this to have those in ag retail stop and think about something that affects every one of us every day.  And that is “price”.  Billions of people make price decisions every day.  Many times they do so without ever consciously considering what it is they subconsciously thought about when they decide if a price someone offers them is to too high, really cheap, or what we thought it would be, or should be.

In the world of retail and sales, we have the unique opportunity to be on both sides of thePartners in Price pricing decision.  What is it that makes selling products to customers so complicated?  Why is it that some farmers will find your price to be in the realm of what they expected (and that doesn’t mean they agree with it) and another farmer will find it simply too high.  How many of us have actually had farmers say, “I thought it was going to be a lot higher than that.”?

All of the working pieces behind these sometimes frustrating replies are based on a lot of moving pieces and we won’t go into all of them here.  However, I wanted to touch on just a couple methods of deterring what a price will be.  Perhaps this will be a simple review.  I have found that when my sales staff or I am getting beat up on the price it is sometimes good to just take two steps back and start with the basics.

Let’s start with a general observation.  Those of who make a living farming and those who supply farmers are in a market that is typically highly commoditized.  Some farmers are niche farmers and grow food stuffs for specific markets that are not commoditized, and most of us can think of such situations.  Let’s face it, a farmer selling No. 2 yellow dent corn is marketing and producing a commodity product.  The farmer who has a dairy herd that produces milk for a local brand of specialty dairy products or a farmer growing specialty grains for a local artisan bread market can’t find a publically traded contract price for spelt, buckwheat, and einkorn.

In many commodity style markets, prices are not very elastic.  In other words, the price can change and yet the consumption doesn’t change accordingly.  Take gasoline.  It is a good example of price “inelasticity”.  We simply need gasoline to maintain our way of life.  Have we seen mighty price swings?  Absolutely.  However, despite the price we still use about the same amount, from year to year.  It’s a tremendous lesson in pricing.  Typically, the margin per gallon for the gas station is about a couple cents a gallon and volume is the name of the game.  Kind of sounds like the world of the grain farmer marketing into the supply chain.  The price paid to the farmer can swing mightily in just a few years.  We can all attest to that!  But in the end, we all need to eat and the customers won’t quit buying that corn.  As consolidations continue up and down the food chain, there will be a natural tendency toward increased price sensitivity in a rather inelastic market.  That can make for frustration.  How will you respond?  It will also create powerful opportunities for the nimble and market savvy.  Will you be one to spot the developing needs and trends?

As a professional consultant and salesperson, you need to consider the market you work in and ask yourself how you can help your customers and yourself in a tough commodity market.  You may hear the question, “What’s you price?” more than you are used to.  We have had these downturns before and rest assured we will have them again.  The price will always be a very important part of the buying decision.

(The Government of Alberta published a nice article on all of the following models and I want to say “Thank you”, Alberta!)

From your selling price, all bills are paid and the company saves for a rainy day, makes investments, and provides a return back to the ownership and those who invested money looking for a return (like banks) on their investment.  You may drop your price on a ton of fertilizer by $20 per ton to meet a competitor or, worse yet, to buy back a customer’s confidence in you or your company.  It’s only $20 bucks you say.  But, if you were using a Cost-based Pricing Model and marked up your fertilizer with a $60 per ton margin you have just made a rather serious decision.  To begin with, you have just given away 1/3 of your profits to pay the bills.  If that customer is needing several hundred tons that can add up to a very large number.  Ask yourself this Retailing 101 question, “How many more tons will I need to sell to offset the profits I am giving away?”

  • Volume: 500 tons
  • Standard Margin: $60/ton
  • Discount: $20/ton
  • Total Margins on Sale: 500 x $60 = $30,000 (half the payroll of one professional employee?)
  • Total Margins on Discounted Price: 500 x ($60 – $20) = $20,000
  • Sacrificed Margins: $30,000 – $20,000 = $10,000
  • New tons needed to make up losses at discounted margins? $10,000 / ($60 – $20) = 250 tons

Where will you find a new 250 tons to make up the sacrificed margins?  What will the price need to be to make that sale to one large new grower?  Do you have enough time to sell that many tons of several new customers?  Probably not.  When working within a Cost-Based Pricing Model margins are very structured.  While it makes sense for some items, it can be rather prohibitive when establishing prices on others.  You probably don’t use the same formulas for markups for seeds or chemicals.  Prices and margins are the lifeblood of any company of any size.  The larger the company the more complex the goals for price setting can become.  People in marketing, finance, operations, sales, bankers, and stockholders,  all have their own goals for price setting and the stage of life of the company itself and the market it serves can also come into play when world sized all the way to family businesses.  It takes dedication to crisp communication, and clarity of goals to keep everyone on the same page.

Competition-based Pricing is another commonly used practice.  This is used in many Partners in the Pricetypes of markets.  We will hear from our customers how our price is too high.  Those of us who have been around a while know that paying attention to the customer pays the bills.  And right behind that is knowing what your competition’s price is on a very select list of items.  Use of the Competition-based pricing model allows one to decide their place in the market.  It is the way to decide your place relative to market share based on price alone.  By the way, if you are are using a Cost-Based Pricing Model for a product and your competitor decides to make a stand on that product and use a Competitor-based Price you can find yourself all the sudden defending your price to a lot of your customers.

Customer-based Pricing is one that we see more and more of over the years.  Way back in the day, agronomy retailers dealt in just a few fertilizers.  Ammoniated fertilizers were the product.  You had a few grades and everyone used the same few grades.  That was definitely a Cost-Based scenario.  Then came blend plants and customization of fertilizer blends.  Customer-based Pricing was immediately something to consider.  It supported the service of custom blending.  It allowed for differences in quality and allowed the customer to help the “value” in your product.  It allowed for flexibility of product offerings and in the process allowed a for a broader price range for the products handled.  Today, blend plants are the norm and many farmers typically buy straight ingredients when quantities allow it.  Has what was Customer-based opportunity turned back into a Cost-based or Competitor-based scenario?  It is IMPERATIVE to know your costs of production.  I knew what it cost me to ship a ton of fertilizer, including all fixed and variable expense lines.

Establishing prices can sometimes be a blending of all the above.  And when this method is successfully implemented the results can be absolutely stellar for your company and devastating to your competition.  Used with success in the fashion industry, heuristic pricing schemes use a blend of intuition, cost-based, competition-based blending the “art” or pricing with more of a scientific approach by blending experience, market prowess, and a whole host of secondary information from various sources to come up with what can become a very effective pricing scheme.  It was said that former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Allan Greenspan, would observe and monitor in excess of 30 different streams of information, what could be termed, Secondary Sources, as he and the rest of the Board went about setting policy and rates.  And when you able to link with manufacturers for market exclusivity of new products, you need to consider carefully how to properly price the product.  I have seen both too low and, without proper overall business support, prices being too high.

Regardless of your method to determine your price rest assured of the following:

When Value of Product is less in the mind of the customer than the Product Cost you will quickly find yourself losing the sale.

In all situations it is an If/then scenario:

If Product Cost > Perceived Product Value then Decreases in revenues will ensue

Protect your brand

In a world that is sharing everything, perceptions can quickly form about your brand.  How important is your brand to price?  To quote a certain politician, “It is huge.”  The brand is the lightning rod that attracts all customer perceptions of you and your company.  If your brand is tarnished you will quickly find yourself playing all sorts of damage control and trying to buy back some of your customer loyalty by sacrificing price.  You discount your Parts of the Brandprices to buy back loyalty and need to sell more to offset the discounts.  A marketing cycle is created and you spiral a business into the ground through the mathematical process of discounting.  And this will feed into the old saying, “you get what you pay for”.  Brand perceptions are created that you are desperate for business and willing to buy your way back into the marketplace.  And once that perception is formed, your brand is cast into this role.  Without radical change, it will grind into eventual ruin and possibly never be able to re-enter the marketplace.

Support your price. 

In times of tight low commodity prices, customers become more price conscious.  It is times like these that you need to keep in constant contact with management.  If your management is like I was they will like to hear what you hear and what you are thinking.  Communication is key.  Your customer KNOWS that you must make a profit.  Good business people want to deal with good business people.  They want to know they have a dealer who will be there today and tomorrow to supply them with the intelligence and products to get them through to better days.

What is the number one contributor to profits?  Your business is a very capital-intensive type of business with a lot of money in “bricks and mortar”, rolling stock and inventory.  Controlling costs may be tops on your list.  It’s certainly is a big one, with payroll alone typically making up the majority of all expenses.  So, controlling costs is key.  However, the single biggest factor to increasing profits is to maintain margins and maintain revenues.  It reminds me of the veterinarian coming to our farm one time when we had a very bad case of coliform mastitis spreading in the herd.  He pointed to the pipeline and said, “What flows through that (pipeline) is what pays your bills”.  All the expense control in the world will not pave the way to ultimate success.  Short term survival?  Absolutely.  Sales are the engine that powers your business into the future.  Expenses are the fuel that powers it.  When you are able to balance margins and reduce costs you will see a greater cumulative effect on profits.  That’s called Return on Investment, profits, stable jobs, satisfied bosses, and most importantly, satisfied customers.


Writer’s note:  I want to put a freely offered promotion out there to Coursera distance learning.  Folks, to stay sharp as professionals we need to exercise our talents and stay sharp.  Coursera does a great job of bringing together short education sessions for professionals to allow us to stay sharp with the help of instructors from all over the globe.  You can even help a farm boy brush up on marketing, pricing for agriculture by showing examples from the fashion world.  Now that’s saying something!





The Three P’s to Plant Nutrition

fertilizer, crops, nitrogen

Plant nutrition is complex! As fertilizer technology develops, so will the need for proper placement.

Due to advancements in technology we are becoming more in tune with the interaction we have with the various resources of water, soil, and living creatures.   Policies and consumer sentiments based on these findings have a direct impact on the farming profession and those who supply the farmer.  And we who are blessed to be involved in something so fundamental to mankind have a great opportunity to champion the stewardship of farming and the environment.

Food security comes through stability…stability of farming, farmer environment, and supplier.

As we move forward in the 4R Stewardship Program and develop our professional skills as nutrient consultants we learn that there is a deep and dynamic relationship between crop, all elements of soil, and the weather – good old unpredictable weather.  Due to advancements in process technology and crop science, the retailer of nutrient products has a greater assortment of product choices to provide safe and effective nutrient management recommendations to help compensate for weather changes.

As we have adopted the 4R Concept for the Right Source at the Right Rate at the Right Time at the Right Place.  Being a retailer in a competitive marketplace you will find sales and marketing opportunities to advance your dealership as the leader in the local marketplace.   It is this area that you can truly shine as by sourcing out products using what I call the “Three P’s” of Product, Performance, and Professionalism.

Products that suit the particular local market and environmental demands your customers are faced with.   Performance that it in synch with the performance your grower’s crop needs when it is needed.  Professionalism that can be applied to the interactions you have with your customer, the consumer, or official explaining what it is you carry and why you carry it.  It is in the area of customizing your fertility recommendations that your professional skills and knowledge can be brought to bear.  Be prepared to explain the best ways to handle and apply the technology you bring to the table in the products you offer.

As we enter the realm of localized recommendations based on farmer/buyer concerns, the day of “one fertilizer recommendation fitting all” is quickly fading. It will be up to you to determine what new products and technologies best fit your market. Some new products perform best when used in conjunction with time proven offerings.  Complex interactions such as the nitrogen cycle with crop and even varietal demand curves are great examples of opportunities to show your professionalism by crafting multi-source solutions!  Someone may have a very good specialized product, but if they don’t know how to use it properly then it is wasted so seek out solid products with rock solid support.

We are in exciting times!  And one thing is for certain, things will change.  Few other industries are better at adapting than the one that has to adapt to the weather while feeding billions!  As we advance in the development of certain nutrient sources it will become more critical than ever to have training in the effective use of these new products so as to maximize an acceptable return on the investment in a premium product while minimizing the impact on the environment.

How to Demonstrate Value to the Customer

soybeans, nodules, roots

Root dig to look for root hair pruning and symbiotic nodule development.

Ag Retail is kind of a misnomer.  While the industry is classified retail, our customers are usually not what everyone else considers a retailer to be.  Mention the term to most people and they think about Old Navy, Walmart, or maybe Home Depot.  Think about it, if you say you’re a salesperson in Ag Retail people could think you work as a floor salesperson at the local Farm and Home.  There is nothing wrong with being the floor salesperson.  However, if you are a salesperson in Agronomy Retail facts are your potential “retail customer” will typically be purchasing tens of thousands if not over a million dollars of good services while operating a multimillion business.  They will rely on you to provide the best for their situation in products and services.  This is becoming more the more the norm.  As an agronomy retailer, you need to consider the best ways to effectively present your products in such an environment.  Over the years, I have read many good articles and books on products and marketing.  At this time, I want to take the time to recognize the two that apply to this article.  

  1.  James C. Anderson, James A. Narus, and Wouter Van Rossum, (March 2006),“Customer Value Propositions in Business Markets”,Harvard Business Review, pp 91-99.
  2.  I would like to thank the countless customers, comrades, and Mfg. Representatives that also gave me much to consider and learn.  You all helped a farm boy learn about Agronomy Retail and Marketing.

The Agronomy Retail world is a fast changing world.  It is an industry that increasingly finding itself with suppliers of world-sized proportions, staffs, and market presence.  And it is with these suppliers that the retailer must form working relationship.  On the other side is the customer…the farmer.  And so it is that the retailer works with a farmer who due to their growing size and market prominence will also have now fewer than two and perhaps as many as five or six other “specialists” working with them.  Each will have their specialty in areas such as animal nutrition, field equipment, grain handling equipment, environmental and safety compliance, ect.  On the income side of the business, the farmer will most likely be working with a professional to help determine the best way to market their grain, milk, or animals.

As the size of the farm operation grows so does the complexity of the staff.  I have worked with operations that would employ upwards of 40 or more employees and have multiple layers of management, such as in large dairy farms, farming several thousand acres.  Then you have the grain farmer. Mechanization allows father and son grain operations to farm well in excess of 3,000 acres with the staff basically being four family members.  With over $3 million invested in field and grain handling equipment, they cover a lot of ground but don’t have the time to be the field scout, agronomist, and seed guru. Perhaps you serve the vegetable and fruit farms that can become very labor intensive with labor being the largest expense.  To them being able to have a professional agronomy supplier help manage the agronomy decisions may be a very welcomed relief!  Wow, what a confidence booster if someone looks to you like that.  On the flip side, what an equally high level of expectation!

With the trend of consolidation continuing, the retailer can find themselves in the position of either being the “top dog” in the local marketplace for perhaps the “upstart” competitor that the rest growl about.   I am sure we all can identify with one or both camps.  There are those within the world of retail that have seen the need for growth through acquisition in order to advance their companies.  And in the process attempt to bring the market a certain level of products and services that otherwise could not be effectively offered.  Meanwhile, the independent retailer will be looking to perhaps find the “niche” market.  The “itch that is not being scratched” by other retailers for farmers in the local area.

Throw in a rapidly changing landscape of vendor consolidations and new product introductions and a retailer can be overwhelmed by this seeming deluge of variables.  It is important to always remember that it is the farmer who pays the bills, and it is the farmer who must be served.

With the farmer seeing lower farm revenues for the foreseeable future, perhaps even negative cash flows, they will become more and more tempted to buy based on price.  However, they know and we know that price isn’t always the best.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t we see cheapest of everything on the farm all the time??  Powerful advertising and highly efficient levels of service already provided by your competition may leave you feeling like you brought a knife to a gun fight!

One way to effectively remain competitive in an environment of this nature is to bring the best in products and services to the farmer.  But, don’t we all think we bring the best to the show?  Who plans on being the last place finisher in the county fair?  One technique to use is the use of developing effective Customer Value Propositions.  Think about it.  With or without realizing it, your suppliers present them to you all the time.  They occur when the new chemical programs come out in the fall or when the new seed programs come out in August or September.  We have them when it comes to equipment and fertilizer purchases as well.  If you are the buyer/manager/owner you have your needs & desires.  Do you effectively place your best products and services against your competitors?  Do you unintentionally sacrifice margins to get the sale?  Perhaps you even lose the sale even when you were convinced that you had the best offering for the farmer.  Did you do a good job at presenting value to that farmer?  While we hear these propositions from our suppliers, we don’t always do a good job at targeting the RIGHT proposition to the individual grower.

Let’s touch briefly on the three main ways to effectively compete using Customer Value Propositions.

ALL BENEFITS propositions are what we hear a lot of in our lives.  Remember the ads you hear promoting all the benefits you will receive if you buy from that company?  That is typically what is called an ALL BENEFITS value proposition.  If the customer says, “why should I buy your seed?” That can probably be taken as an All Benefits type of question.  However, I would suggest that this method has been used so frequently that just like weeds becoming resistant to atrazine, our farmer customers have become kind of resistant to this type of Proposition Statement.  It is an easy one to teach the sales force.  You can call together a sales meeting, hand out the tech support sheets and a punch list of the benefits of the product.  Throw in some good ribbing and teasing, and some laughs and you had your sales meeting.  But, in an environment that is becoming increasingly “homogenized” in the products offered the farmer, this will perhaps leave you lacking in the sales closings column.

But, what if the farmer is tired of that approach?  You tried that before and the conversation ends just as quick as it starts.  You may consider using FAVORABLE POINTS of DIFFERENCE.  That shows that you are different than the competition.  FAVORABLE POINTS OF DIFFERENCE propositions are the professional technique of sitting down and explaining how your product/service differ from the competitor.  You have seen or heard those who trash their competitors.  That is NOT what I am talking about.  Instead, this is a very professional review performed by you as the spokesperson for your organization explaining (not telling) what it is that makes your product/service different than your competitors.  This exercise will bring to light those things that make you unique.  Being unique is a good thing.  For the farmer who is looking for a different option, it may not always be about selling benefits – It may be all about explaining your differences.  The typical question to signal this may be, “Why should I buy from you instead of my current supplier?”  Great time to position yourself as being different……allow the farmer to determine if you can say you are “better” than you competition.

But, what if the farmer likes some of the things that your competitor has but you need to make the pitch for the business by offering something different, something you know would be better for this customer?  How about combining both the benefits and the differences?  That is RESONATING FOCUS.  Focusing on the specific customer’s situation, you provide points of parity relative to you competitor. (points of sameness) while at the same time offering a point of difference in a blend that provides just enough for the customer to begin to relate to what you are offering and compare it to the current supplier.

This strategy is a little more difficult to administer and takes added effort on your part with some well-written sales training that perhaps includes some role play.

RESONATING FOCUS is probably my favorite one.  In the retailer world, supplier financing, cross-merchandizing and other regional and national programs can make it look like everyone is all the same.  “Homogenized offerings” is a phrase that comes to mind.  And in the process, it can sometimes seem difficult to find anything but the price to stand on.  Might I suggest the use of RESONATING FOCUS?  It takes a level of technical understanding about your and your competitor’s products.  If used effectively, it could put you in the driver’s seat with you customer, regardless of how mighty the competitor.  First, look at the list of benefits you put together about your product. They are undoubtedly good, solid benefits that make your product worth consideration. These show that you are different than the competition.

But, what if the farmer likes some of the things that your competitor has but you need to make the pitch for the business by offering something different?  Go ahead, acknowledge your competitor.  How about combining both the benefits and the differences?  That is RESONATING FOCUS.  Focusing on this specific customer’s situation and in doing so show that you command a thorough understanding of their farms.  You provide points of parity relative to your competitor. (points of sameness) while at the same time offering a point of difference in a blend that provides just enough for the customer to begin to relate to what you are offering and compare it to the current supplier.

It’s important to remember, you don’t always have to hit a homerun on every benefit your product has.  In the use of RESONATING FOCUS, you acknowledge that while your competitor may have this point of difference you have a point of parity with them while offering a different benefit…a more suitable benefit to their specific need.  In such a scenario, you need to have a firm grasp what it is you have to offer, what your competition has and how to effectively present the two in an Effective Customer Value Proposition.

When you learn how to accurately place all three types of propositions you will find yourself having happier customers, higher customer service levels, more effective and confident sales people.  It’s a positive energy cycle, and customers will truly consider you the professional they desire for agronomic support.

Thanks for reading!  Feel free to share your success stories and how you helped show the farmer that you had the best solution to their problem.