The 2017 Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) annual meeting in Kansas City, MO, brought together a smattering of speakers, from long-time crop protection industry veterans to college students interested in making agriculture their career of choice once they graduate. Overall, said Matt Ewers of IEDS Logistics and acting MACA President for 2016-17, the reason for this speaker variety tied back to the association’s mission for its 2017 meeting — letting the industry’s voice be heard. “This year’s meeting is titled ‘Time for Action — Let Your Voice be Heard,’” said Ewers. “It is focused on speakers sharing ideas and information on communicating with others not involved with agriculture. We need to take action and explain agriculture. We can’t wait for someone else to do it.”
This was evident with MACA’s keynote speaker, book author Michele Payn, Principal at Cause Matters Corp. According to Payn, U.S. agriculture has a serious negative perception problem with the general public. “The anti-agricultural community has a very loud voice, especially on social media,” she said. “I don’t understand for the life of me why agricultural companies don’t do a better job at fighting back against this.”
Part of the challenge in reaching the general public is the fact that less than 2% of the U.S. population knows anything whatsoever about agriculture and how it operates. “Most consumers have never shaken hands with a farmer,” said Payn. “But based upon what they might know, they probably trust farmers. They don’t trust farming, however.”
To reach this audience with agriculture’s positive message, said Payn, agriculture proponents must try to “get into their shoes” when making their case. “My challenge for you here, if you really want to translate farm practices to Suzy Q. Consumer, is to get out of your work boots, get out of your offices, and get out of your comfort zones and think about this making this argument differently,” she said. “Most of these consumers only want to keep their children safe and protect them from something they have been led to believe might harm them.”
Making an Emotional Connection
To properly do this, Payn suggested that pro-agriculture advocates attempt to try a different approach to connecting with the general public. In most cases, this means moving away from the fact-laden arguments that the industry has tended to rely on for the past decade or so when preaching its point.
“How are we going to fight the challenge of where our food comes from?” asked Payn. “It has to come down to emotion, not science, not facts, and not research. People will forget the way that we farm, but people will never, ever forget the way that we make them feel.”
As an example of this in practice, Payn used genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the very vocal arguments against their consumption/use on the Internet and social media Websites. Since their introduction into the agricultural marketplace, the suppliers of GMOs have tended to promote their positive traits using science, facts, and research as assurances to the public. However, many anti-GMO speakers have used the public unfamiliarity with these statements to make GMOs seem “scary.”
“How do we talk about GMOs?” asked Payn. “Every time we are put on the defense by anti-GMO folks, we lose. Instead, we have to make some kind of human connection talking about their positives.”
To do this herself, Payn has asked GMO skeptics if they know anyone suffering from diabetes. “If they do, I tell them I happen to believe that everyone suffering from diabetes has a right to insulin — and that most insulin is made using GMO technology. That tends to open consumers’ minds on the topic and what it might mean for food production.”
If this approach doesn’t work, Payn uses a device now common to most consumers — an iPhone — as a parallel to GMO crops. “I ask them if I take my Facebook app off my iPhone, is it still an iPhone,” she said. “If they say ‘yes,’ I point out that GMO crops are the same as this, with one gene being added to the plant that will protect it against a certain kind of insect, and then the farmer doesn’t have to spray it to protect it.”
The Industry’s Efforts
Of course, several ag-oriented companies are already doing their part to spread the industry’s good news message. The various companies that do business in the agricultural industry all work towards a common goal — helping grower-customers to provide food, fiber, and fuel for the world to use. Yet, according to Neil Cleveland, Director of U.S. Green Business for Bayer CropScience, these same companies have been a little less united in their efforts to actively promote the good news of modern agriculture to the general public.
At least until now.
“It’s really great to see some consistency in action among agricultural organizations on this topic,” said Cleveland. “I question sometimes why we don’t amplify this better as an industry.”
At Bayer, Cleveland said that the company has “an obligation” to speak out on the positive aspects of agriculture “because we are a leader in the industry.”
“Besides, there is lots of misinformation in the marketplace about agriculture with the general public,” he said. “So we have to make sure we tell the good story about ag, because no one else might.”
According to Tom Schaefer, Seed Treatment Marketing Lead for Monsanto, part of the problem for agricultural organizations in spreading this good news has been rooted in past efforts that haven’t been entirely successful. “When Monsanto first started talking about agriculture with the public 10 to 15 years ago, we used lots of facts and science — and we quickly got nowhere,” said Schaefer. “Now, we have changed this focus to be more on emotions than science by sharing personal stories with the public.”
For the past few years, Monsanto has promoted its Growing Our Voice Ambassador Program. “This allows our employees to speak on the positives of agriculture by building trust and relationships with the audience,” he said. Since it started, added Schaefer, more than 4,000 ambassadors have spoken about agriculture’s positives on a global basis.
Getting Employees Involved
Another company using employees to spread the good word about agriculture is the newly formed DowDuPont. According to the company’s Logistics Specialist Lindsey Jackson, approximately 50% of DowDuPont employees didn’t grow up with an agriculture background. The same percentage have also been with the company for less than five years. “That means most of these folks don’t fully understand all of the industry’s issues,” said Jackson.
To help, DowDuPont has provided clear talking points to employees and sent several of them out into their communities to tell agriculture’s positives stories. “As of today, we have over 2,000 hours in employee participation in this Grow the Conversation program, speaking at high schools and online,” said Jackson.
Finally, Syngenta Crop Protection has taken a commitment to helping growers increase their biodiversity and improve their farmland through its Good Growth Plan. According to Jill Wheeler, Head of Sustainable Productivity for North America at the company, Syngenta has set up a series of benchmark farms in 42 different countries that track 23 different types of crops.
“We are committed to increasing biodiversity on 12 million acres and improving farmland by reducing degradation or soil quality on 24 million acres globally,” said Wheeler. “We also looked at the human component by empowering small land holders to increase their productivity by 50% and training 20 million farmers in labor safety practices.”
The Industry Update
Besides hearing about the industry’s communications efforts, other attendees at MACA 2017 were interested to find out how the agriculture marketplace is, and will likely, perform in these sometime uncertain economic times. But according to Dr. Jason Henderson, Director of Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, it is his belief that conditions will move in agriculture’s favor, eventually.
“I’m excited for the future of agriculture,” said Henderson. “You are probably saying ‘what?’ about now. ‘Have you looked at crop prices lately?’ My whole point is that right now, we are going through a tough time in agriculture. But ag cycles go up and come down. On the backside, I think there’s a future of prosperity out there.”
Looking back through history, Henderson described agriculture’s fortunes as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” He was able to identify at least four major “up” cycles agriculture has experienced over the past 100 years or so. This included World Wars I and II, Russian grain demand during the late 1980s, and the ethanol/China boom of the early 2000s. “These were the good,” he said.
As for the bad, this was undoubtedly the early 1980s, when farm incomes fell from $100 billion down to $50 billion — and interest rates were so high that most growers were making as much in interest payments on their loans as they were taking in from their harvests. “These were the bad times,” he said.
And when it came to the “ugly” time, this would have had to have been the late 1920s/early 1930s, when the world was in the grip of the Great Depression. “In that cycle, not only did farmers not have any money, NO ONE had any money,” said Henderson. “That was definitely the ugly time.”
When looking at today’s agricultural marketplace, Henderson sees plenty of parallels to the historic down cycles. There is a liquidity crisis (i.e., a lot of money for lending), flat demand for crops, and a high value for the U.S. dollar compared with other world currencies.
Given these conditions, when it comes to their loans, growers are now looking to “kick the can down the road,” said Henderson, by asking for extensions to pay off these debts with their lending institutions. “Farm debt is on the rise,” he said. “Since interest rates are still low, many farmers are going longer term on their loan repayments, with approximately 85% of their balance sheets represented by real estate. The question now is how long can these farmers roll over these loans before they run out of collateral?”
As for which growers are struggling the most under this new market reality, Henderson pointed to size as the key factor. “Who doesn’t have cash right now?” he asked. “Younger, beginning farmers and producers who grew their operations using debt to do it. Who has cash? Older, experienced farmers with lots of land and other assets. And this group is looking to buy from the one without the cash.” In fact, in a recent study, Purdue University found that only 25% of smaller growers (those with 500 acres or less) had a positive cash flow. By contrast, 98% of larger growers had positive cash flows.
Given these factors, Henderson predicted that overall agriculture would see much more consolidation at the grower, ag retail, and supplier levels “for the next three years, as the federal government attempts to raise interest rates from their current 1.25% rate to 3% during that time.”
However, when all the dust finally settles, Henderson is confident U.S. agriculture will find a new “middle-of-road” cycle. “Most likely, today’s agriculture will land between good and bad,” he said. “But it will be like drinking lukewarm coffee, with market growth ultimately flattening out into a steadier pattern.”
Other attendees were interested to find out more about the recent wave of agricultural industry consolidations. For this update, representatives from three crop protection/seed companies involved in the consolidation trend were on hand to share their stories with attendees. First to speak was Judd O’Connor, North American Lead for DowDuPont. As a combined company, DowDuPont now has a market presence across more than 130 countries and in almost every major crop. “From a research standpoint, we will be able to bring global a germplasm base to those businesses that wasn’t available in the past,” said O’Connor.
Now that DowDuPont has joined, O’Connor said the overriding plan was to begin splitting the company into three separate divisions, with one of these devoted entirely to agriculture. Over the next 12 to 18 months, these divisions will begin working more independently from one another with the ultimate goal to split each of them off into three independent companies.
“Then what is now DowDuPont agriculture will be a pure play agricultural company,” he said. “This new company doesn’t have a name just yet, but that’s something we will be working on over the next four to six months.”
Next up was Vern Hawkins, Regional Director, North America Crop Protection for Syngenta. In terms of market standing, Hawkins said that the new Syngenta is the world leader in crop protection products and seed care. At present, the company is the No. 3 producer of seed, but hopes to strengthen this position in the coming years.
“Syngenta wants to be much stronger in the seed area than it is today,” said Hawkins. “So our company is planning to invest more in this segment for the upcoming 2018 season and beyond.”
Within its new “home” market, China, Syngenta will be a major player, added Hawkins — at least depending upon your definition of the word “major.” “Syngenta, in the branded chemicals space, is the market leader in China with a market share of 6%,” he said. “Obviously, that tells you just how fragmented the Chinese market is when it comes to this industry.”
The final speaker during this session was Amy O’Shea, Vice President and Business Director for FMC Agricultural Solutions. Although not directly involved in a merger itself, FMC nonetheless benefitted from the wave of consolidation currently going on in the supplier marketplace.
“In March, FMC was able to announce that it had agreed to acquire a significant portion of DuPont’s products, along with research and development and manufacturing assets, for that company to satisfy regulatory concerns about its merger with Dow,” said O’Shea. “Basically, we were in the right place at the right time to make this happen.”
In all, this acquisition gives FMC access to 15 synthetic molecules and 1.8 million compounds that could lead to future product development. This includes 12 active ingredients currently in development for 60 different crops plus numerous biological products.
“At the end of the day, the landscape changes for us,” said O’Shea. “With these acquisitions, FMC now has moved from No. 8 among crop protection product suppliers to No. 5, with our sales increasing from $2 billion to $4 billion.”