The great fertilizer price crash of 2008, which left fully stocked retailers holding thousands of tons of over-market-price fertilizer that growers did not want to buy, has created some relational scars between retailers and growers, and retailers and suppliers. While retailers say their relationships with grower-customers have been evolving into being more about business than relationships anyway, this event has accelerated the trend. Handshake deals are increasingly being replaced by written contracts that must be adhered to by both sides.
Also, as growers become more sophisticated, and younger owners take over for the aging farm population, ag retailers will increasingly need to segment their customers by the level and type of service they demand. Size is one way consideration, but not all large growers are sophisticated. Younger growers have shown generally less interest in relationships, and are less tied to proximity as a reason to buy from a particular retailer. They also are steeped in agronomic training vs. their forebears.
Although fertilizer prices generally have returned to their historic norms, many grower-customers have hesitated to apply more macronutrients to their fields. If crop and fertilizer price instability returns, some growers may be tempted to “mine” soils again, against the recommendations of agronomists. According to multiple sources, soil tests in many areas are making a strong case against mining in 2010.
In addition for crop nutrients, with the change in administration, there has been a renewed interest in regulation related to agriculture from several standpoints: cap-and-trade, fertilizer run-off control, spray drift, hazmat transportation, storage, ew-evaluations, etc. Federal and state associations are working overtime to educate legislators and get agriculture’s point of view heard.
Luckily, natural gas prices have dropped from their high in February 2009. This is because shale recovery methods have added significantly to domestic natural gas stocks (providing a 300-year supply, according to some sources). This should have a long-term impact on nitrogen pricing and availability for U.S. retailers.
Retailers saw a significant decline in fungicide applications in many areas of the country as grower-customers cut back on preventive applications. It remains to be seen if this market will recover during an uncertain 2010.
Branded crop protection products have made a bit of a comeback compared with their generic counterparts during the past couple of years. Observers report that with the exception of generic brands of glyphosate, grower-customers tend to prefer branded crop protection products to their post-patent counterparts.
Spray drift remains a big area of concern for the marketplace. According to industry insiders, activists have kept up the pressure on EPA to adhere to the 6th Circuit Appeals court rulings on buffer zones and product use. The industry is hopeful it can get the Supreme Court to review/overturn this measure, but this could take some time to accomplish.
Recent investments in “feet on the ground” by mega-biotech companies revealed that they are not relying on dealers to protect and sell the value of traited seed. They are happy to use the retailer for inventory storage, fulfillment, and training, but seed manufacturers are not entrusting their futures to retailers. In some instances, the seed company employee works out of the dealership, and the dealer provides product logistics and customer service. Some retailers have spent millions training their seed businesses but are not being afforded the opportunity to sell at margins necessary to keep it as a sustainable part of the retail model. Biotech company investment could signal a shift toward a “pharmaceuticals” model of selling that is more one-on-one with company representatives and more consultative as the technologies get more complex.
Some industry insiders say that demand for conventional seed in their markets has continued to grow, in part as a response to weed resistance concerns, but also in response to food processors looking for non-biotech sources.
Automatic steering systems have become popular at all levels of the ag retail community, from large multi-nationals to small independents. This popularity should continue as the technology improves accuracy and unit costs come down even further.
The use of remote diagnostics and unit support will become more widespread as wireless technology improves. This will allow retailers to capture and store application data much faster and more efficiently than is currently possible in many parts of the country.
Retailers report that demand and excitement regarding biofuels has dropped off significantly with the drop in oil prices that has made ethanol production less profitable. Still, because it seems that subsidies are not likely going away, and next generation technology is at least five years off, the belief is that the corn ethanol marketplace has at least a medium-term future. In the interim, corn ethanol will be at the mercy of non-market based factors such as mandated blend levels and minimum mandated use levels, which can’t be predicted or controlled.