Four Canadian farmers share their insights into the relationship between farmer and retailer at the 2018 CAAR Conference.

Four Canadian farmers share their insights into the relationship between farmer and retailer at the 2018 CAAR Conference.

From left to right:

Kevin Serfas – Serfas Farms Ltd.

Kevin is a third-generation farmer, and director at Alberta Canola and Canola Council of Canada. Along with his brother and father, he farms 67,000 acres and raises 6,000 head of beef cattle near Turin, Alta.

Lane Stockbrugger – LDS Farms

Lane holds a business administration degree from University of Regina and studied principles of agri-marketing at the University of Guelph. He farms 4,000 acres near Leroy, Sask. with his brother Lance.

Thomas Benson

Tom and his brother Barry farm 6,000 acres of small grains, oilseeds and pulses near Raymore, Sask.

Ian McKillop – Argyle Farms

Ian is a partner in a fifth-generation diversified family farm near Dutton, in southwest Ontario. His operation produces eggs, beef cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat and solar energy.

Moderator: Markus Weber – President of LandView Drones


Moderator: Markus Weber – President of LandView Drones
Moderator: Markus Weber – President of LandView Drones

Markus Weber: Tell us about a time that a retailer or their staff really impressed you.

Ian McKillop: Last year was a prime example. It was a wet spring, we were delayed planting and we had to adjust our seed selection and our seed program. Our ag retailer was very quick to help us in determining different seeds to get and sourcing different seeds. Of course, we weren’t the only ones, so he had to deal with a lot of different people in the same situation.

Thomas Benson: We’ve had a lot of ins-tances of really strong service in delivering product on time – I think that’s what comes to my mind when you ask about service. It’s really on an ongoing basis; we rely on the product being there on time.

Lane Stockbrugger: Three years ago, we were very wet in the spring and we were just starting seeding on the Friday of the May long weekend – that’s late for us – we should be 10, 12 days ahead of that, ideally. We were on our first round and broke the axle on our liquid fertilizer caddy, so we quickly called up our contact at our co-op. He got back to us about two hours later and said that he had found one in Lemburg, about four hours to the south of us. He managed to line up a trucker who, because it was the Friday night of a long weekend, had to stay over and deliver it the next morning. It arrived at our farm around 2:00 or 3:00 on Saturday afternoon. That was an absolute “going over and above” experience. Yes, it cost us dearly to do that, but they were absolutely committed to our success, which is what it comes down to, and they’ve got our loyalty now, for sure.

Kevin Serfas: In the springtime, I generally get myself into a bind when it comes to canola seed. A couple of years ago, we were in a panic trying to find canola seed and, after a lot of phoning around, we managed to find some in Camrose. It took the combined effort of several dealers, but within four or five hours, I got the seed that I needed. That’s just one of the instances that I can think of where retails have gone above and beyond.

MW: From the positive to the learning opportunities – tell us about a time when a retailer didn’t meet your needs and, ultimately, what was the outcome in that case?

IM: Just last August, our retailer had arranged a custom applicator to spray fungicide on our corn crop. It was the Saturday of the long weekend and the applicator pulled out, assuming he had sprayed all our corn fields. We got working on Sunday and did not see tracks through our fields. We were pretty sure that he had not sprayed them, but by this time the applicator was long gone. It took quite a bit of convincing to get our retailer to come out and verify that the fields were not sprayed. Eventually, he came out and confirmed that the crop hadn’t been sprayed, but, of course, we already knew that. Once they realized that there was a mix-up in communication between the applicator and the co-op, they brought someone else in to spray the corn.

TB: In general, I feel it’s weak when it’s clear that the company representative or sales person is just interested in the sale and that’s where it stops. I know everybody has sales targets and product they want to move, but when it’s a one-time thing and there’s no real long-term relationship or plan, that’s where it falls short for me.

We want to have a long-term relationship with a retail, if they can meet a wide variety of our needs. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation – we still like to have some business with a couple of the others, but it’s pretty easy to identify which companies just want to move product. It’s really the depth and the relationship that makes a difference for us.

LS: We’re very fortunate to have a number of retails very close – some independents, some line companies – and with that comes a lot of choice. For me, the wreck was really over the course of a year. This particular retail was close to our farm, and proximity is nice for those instances when “we need this product now,” but time and time again, they never had the product or an alternative product. They just simply – for whatever reason – couldn’t supply the product if we didn’t have it planned out well in advance. At the end of the year, it became evident this partner just wasn’t going to work for us, and we had to cut ties with them. I use the word “partner” because I truly see it as a relationship, versus just a retail transaction.

KS: The one thing that we farmers can’t stress enough is that when we work and when we don’t work isn’t dictated by anybody, except the weather. To have somebody that we can work with, who is available whenever we need – even at the most awkward or inopportune times – that’s the most important thing.

MW: None of you have mentioned price yet. How do you strike a balance when you have a partner that you want to give the business to, but the price doesn’t fit?

LS: I’ll jump in and give a bit of perspective. We’ll always end up buying canola seed from three different retails and that’s just to, number one, keep everyone happy, even if I know at times that I’m not getting the best price. People can shake their heads and think, “Well, that’s ridiculous,” but if it helps me in the long-term to maybe pay a little more and give that retail some business, I’m okay to do that.

I know I’m not going to win every time, but if the retail is the one winning every time and I’m the one losing, that’s where the relationship falls apart and it’s no longer a partnership. Lane Stockbrugger

Again, it comes back to that relationship and I feel that it needs to be a bit of a win-win situation. I know I’m not going to win every time, but if the retail is the one winning every time and I’m the one losing, that’s where the relationship falls apart and it’s no longer a partnership.

TB: You certainly don’t want to price check all the time, but you want to be confident that you’re getting a good base price. I appreciate when my supplier will say, “On this particular product, right now we may not be the best price in town.” If they’re telling me that up front, then we can work with that. I appreciate that kind of transparency.

IM: For us, it comes down to having that long-term relationship with our main ag supplier. We’ve dealt with the same company for probably 80 per cent of our needs for 25 or 30 years. We trust them – they’re a key part of our farm’s success – and we trust that they have competitive prices. Maybe we could drive all around the countryside and get some lower prices somewhere else, but when it comes down to wanting to have some agronomic service on the weekend or at night, they’re only a phone call away.

KS: For the most part, in our area, prices aren’t super wide. Nobody’s going to squawk over 15, 20, 30 cents an acre. A lot of the time, I know that the guys who are going to service me the least are the guys who I expect the cheapest product from. Guys who are a little better at servicing are usually a little higher, but nobody’s way out to lunch. Fertilizer’s a whole other story – we bid that out 100 per cent. As far as crop care products, if somebody’s way out of line, we’ll tell them; otherwise, we don’t have too much of an issue with guys being too far off.

MW: How do you see the retail supply industry developing and how would you like to see it develop, as we head into the future?

KS: I think that for the industry to stay healthy, we need to be sure that along with the line companies, we’re also seeing healthy independents. They all have a lot to offer and I think if we go too far into consolidation, it’s not going to be great for the farmer. The more options we have, the better. The independents are a big part of the industry moving forward.

LS: Like Kevin, we would like to see the opportunity to work with multiple partners. I think the independents can be more nimble or agile in terms of adjusting to what our area needs, versus the large line companies. We’ve seen some independents in our area that have popped up recently and with that comes a hunger – they want to work with us and they want to offer something that is different than what we’ve received in the past.

TB: I think where the industry is going is the whole area around advice and evaluation. There’s a lot more product choice out there and the independents have really stepped up to the plate by providing agronomy services and recommendations.

IM: I agree with Tom, I think the adv-ice and evaluation is critical. Speaking from experience, we do a decent job of collecting data, but sometimes that data doesn’t get put to great use. There needs to be a tie-in between us collecting the data, the agronomist and the equipment supplier. I think the retail industry and the agronomists have a role to play in helping us decipher that information and take it to the next step to actually use the data that we collect.

Audience Question: The term “trusted advisor” refers to someone who you are more willing to share a deeper relationship with and who has a deeper knowledge of your farm. How many trusted advisors do you have today, and do they truly understand your operation and understand your needs?

LS: Honestly, when you say “trusted advisor,” I think of my accountant, my lawyer and my banker. I’m not using a crop input partner, an agronomist or an agrologist as a true trusted advisor who’s making that deep of a connection with my farm. They would help me in terms of the prescription of what the fertilizer needs to be, but at the end of the day, that all resides with myself and my brother. That’s really our world and when somebody wants to come and have an annual review about my numbers – sorry.

In the spring, we get calls within days of each other, asking, “What did you plant of this and what did you plant of that?” It’s frustrating because that doesn’t speak to “trusted advisor” or a real, trusted partnership.

TB: The trust has different levels, depending on what the expectation is. So, when you say that term, the mind goes to the financial side, because those are the only ones that we do a real follow-up on. I would certainly class our input supplier, those agronomists particularly, as trusted advisors. I’ll put a lot of trust in what they say and I’m trusting that, number one, they know what they’re talking about and that they’ve done their own research and can back up their recommendations. We don’t do as much of a year-end follow up there – maybe some post-harvest things, but it’s not really crunching the numbers.

Our farm is variable from one field to the other, so it’s hard for us to evaluate a lot of the effectiveness other than the overall yields and what you can see from crop health, but I think we could do a lot more to establish that follow-up aspect.

KS: When it comes to trusted advisors on the agronomy side of things, I think I have multiple trusted advisors, but they’re also very specific – I’ll have a guy that I use as a trusted advisor when it comes to plant nutrition and there will be somebody I use specifically for canola disease or crop protection in cereals. Sitting down at the end of the year to talk with them and see what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what needs to change is probably something that we should do more often.

Audience Question: In your own communities, you have different retails and line companies – who do you see as being active in your community on a regular basis and what sort of value is there in retailers actively supporting the community?

IM: I know our local co-op has been very active in getting the story out and being active partners in the community. They adopted a 4R Nutrient Stewardship Pledge a couple years ago, and whether it’s an initiative like that or being part of Farm and Food Care Ontario or sending young people to the Co-operative Young Leaders program, it makes me feel good to be dealing with a company that is putting time and resources into their corporate social responsibility. It makes me want to deal more with a company like that.

It makes me feel good to be dealing with a company that is putting time and resources into their corporate social responsibility. It makes me want to deal more with a company like that.Ian McKillop

TB: There’s so much need for consumer education on food safety and the value of the product that we produce, and I’m happy to see companies being active in the pro-ag message. It probably doesn’t sway my buying decision completely – but I guess if you have exactly two equals, I’d go with the one that’s doing the public support as well, to tip the balance.

One of the crops we grow is hemp, so I’ve been doing a lot of work in that area lately and just recognizing how much misinformation there is out there. We’re a conventional farm and I feel we grow a good product, but retailers and manufacturers need to put more emphasis on telling the story of how good Canadian agriculture is.

Audience Question: Do you want to be approached by your retailer, and if so, how do you like to be approached?

KS:The relationship I have with the retailers and manufacturers – they know they’re getting a sale and they also know that I don’t want to see them very often. When I need something, I’ll go find them. And social media is huge – if I want to see something, I’ll pull it up on my phone and look at it.

Every customer is different. If you don’t take the time to go out and learn and figure out how that customer wants to be treated, you’re going to have a hard time with it. Developing those relationships takes time but I think that at the end of the day you’re going to benefit.

If you don’t take the time to go out and learn and figure out how that customer wants to be treated, you’re going to have a hard time with it. Developing those relationships takes time. Kevin Serfas

LS: I think, which was Kevin’s point, know your customer; know which ones need more facetime and which ones are okay with a phone call or a text. If you have a value to offer, I’m fine with you coming to the farm, but we don’t have a lot of time for people who just want to come and visit. We can get ahold of any of our retails by text, usually anytime, and I love that quick back and forth with a text. When we get to prices, it’s nice to see that in an email so I can find it again six months later.


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Editor’s Note: This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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