Dropping An ‘F’ Bomb

Now that I’ve covered this market for nine years, I’ve found that true surprises are becoming fewer and farther between. In the past two years, I’ve had only two truly jaw dropping moments — one in 2007, when an equipment owner said he didn’t believe the boom in the ag economy would last so he wasn’t expanding (a correct assessment, as it turns out) and one in 2008, when I learned that a well-respected manufacturer was struggling to impress customers with its precision offerings.

The third jaw dropper happened during the 2009 Commodity Classic. I could never have predicted this one, given what I think I know about the industry.

Before I get to this moment of surprise, let’s look back. Exactly one year ago, I wrote a column praising the ability of ag retailers to build long-lasting, strong relationships with their grower-customers while providing them with not only needed inputs, but useful information. I pointed out that, compared to other markets I’ve covered, this trait seemed unique to our industry and was the key to future success/growth.

Fast forward to this year. I was sitting in a on a panel discussion of five growers during a pre-Commodity Classic event. This group had more than 100-plus years experience and farmed more than 12,000 acres of ground in the states of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

Talking about current ag conditions, someone asked who these growers used as their primary information sources. Naturally, given their histories and locations, I expected all five to universally answer their local ag retailer.

Boy, was I wrong.

Three out of the five growers said they didn’t have strong relationships with retailers. The grower from North Dakota said he relied on university folks for information, adding that retailers in his area “get left in the dust.” The Oklahoma grower agreed. “I don’t have the support from my local retailer that we’ve hoped for,” he said. “We need Extension to help.” Finally, the Iowa grower said he bought inputs from several dealers — the implication being that products, not information, was what he got from retailers.

So out of five growers, only two used retailers for information. If this were a test, this 40% relationship grade would give our industry a solid “F.”

Can this marketplace maintain its historic success with a failing grade attached to one of its founding principles? I don’t think so.

Retailers everywhere need to keep their trusted advisor status intact if they hope to survive, especially in these uncertain economic times. The minute our industry becomes nothing more than a bunch of “input suppliers” is when ag retailers can all be replaced by lower cost, big box-type competitors.

Luckily, my faith in the future for ag retailers was restored somewhat by comments from the panel’s Kansas grower. “For­tunately, we have a really good retailer who knows their stuff when it comes to information,” he said.

We need to make sure all our grower-customers think this is the case.

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