Sowing Seed Sales

Top seed retailers we talked with don’t beat around the bush. They use terms like “24/7” and “12-months-a-year” to describe the level of commitment needed for success. But what does that look like on the ground in a dealer’s business?

Devoting Resources

Scot Sparks, seed division manager, says one thing that Hintzsche Fertilizer did right more than 10 years ago was hire one person full-time to be in charge of seed. “Someone with a seed background, who understands the business and gets up every morning thinking, ‘Okay, how are we going to grow the seed business?'” he describes.

You’re fighting for time, he admits. “Getting our sales people to take on another line of products to sell that has different timing — or in some cases the same time frame … it’s more work for them. It’s not like they weren’t already fully employed and busy.”

Retailers can combine business and training at meetings. That’s what happens at Frontier FS, says Bob Williams, crops marketing manager. The company’s 22 crop salesmen meet for a full day once a month, with dates set a year in advance. One quarter of the time is spent on company issues, while 75% focuses on “marketing, training, and just seed corn,” says Williams.

Frontier FS leadership doesn’t balk at the time needed to build the seed business. Williams said they made this resource commitment when the first RoundUp Ready bean came out. “They recognized the industry was evolving to where to generate the same income per acre, we’d have to have the seed business too, beyond fertilizer and chemical inputs,” he says.

Another reason Frontier FS makes seed such a focus: Seed buying is an emotional decision for growers, explains Williams. “With fertilizer and chemicals, it’s not the same kind of emotion — as long as you get a dead weed out there, they really don’t care what the herbicide is. But seed is a living plant that they run through the yield monitor. If a farmer makes a bad decision, he’s got to look at it all year. And at the coffee shop, he’s got to hear about the neighbor’s 200-bushel corn, while he’s getting 150.”

While Frontier FS did not need more personnel for seed, the firm did need a few more buildings. The company has constructed two 60- x 80-foot seed warehouses, at a price tag of $80,000 each — and has plans to build two more. Williams adds that one nice thing about seed products is that both staff and trucks already on hand can be utilized before the spring rush.

Hintzsche was able to utilize both warehouse space and personnel already in place as the company entered the seed business.

Limiting Lines

Mark Risley, marketing director with Wyffels Hybrids, says that retailers carry a limited number of brands. “What kind of company do you want to be?” he asks. He believes dealers should not just be vendors, but partners. “Focus on 6 to 10 hybrids which do well in an area and recommend a package to customers.”

Hintzsche has three primary suppliers (Monsanto, Wyffels, and LG Hybrids). “We’ve dealt with five or six different companies, but either their support of our customers has not been adequate, or their performance and quality, or just their lack of getting things done businesswise — like not being up-to-date — have eliminated them from the pool,” says Sparks.

At Frontier FS, seed lines include the FS brand (from GROWMARK), NK, and Monsanto. “We have a great relationship with our seed partners,” says Williams. Indeed, those good vibes mean a lot at crunch times. “If a variety is short when you go to order and you’ve got a good relationship, they’ll find the seed for you. We sold just shy of 54,000 bags of seed this year, and there were only about 90 bags of corn we couldn’t get — it might not always be the grade size, but we get the variety we want,” he describes.

Risley advises retailers to be thinking a year ahead, anticipating what varieties growers will need and want next year. “You can’t ask them enough questions,” he says.

Risley and the dealers CropLife® talked with emphasized the need to trial varieties in local conditions. The key, believes Dave Jacobson, owner of Jacobson Seed, is regional performance. “The traits are great, but they’re being offered by many companies,” he says.

Customer Care

“I see all my customers every year, whether they’ve bought with me last season or not,” says Jacobson. Hence, of all the ways to improve seed business, one-on-one customer care came to the fore.
“We have the varieties to match up to growers’ management practices and soil types but so does everyone else,” says Williams. “Our advantage is that we’re on the farm all the time. There’s that trust that we could probably best match the varieties up with their farm.” At presstime, Frontier FS’ sales force was walking growers’ fields, digging roots, looking for rootworm events, and checking to see what hybrids were working on farms.

Retailers are in a unique position to service customers — in many cases better than local independent seed reps. The ag industry has created a host of business tracking systems to help retailers monitor a grower’s field and buying histories. Information already on hand from fertility and chemical recommendations is precious and fits perfectly into helping growers choose hybrids or varieties.

“Varieties and placement are getting to be a bigger deal, than with the tie-in with chemicals,” says Sparks. “It means trying to keep hybrids out of places we know are just a disaster waiting to happen.” Growers really need a retailer’s expertise.

The biggest challenge in seed sales today is maintaining those grower relationships, says Risley. “Care for customers, don’t just service them. Hire representatives with the same vision and passion. Go beyond their expectations.”

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