Ag retailers can help customers plan ahead through annual year-end reviews.

When crops are in the bin and fields are covered in a blanket of snow, ag retailers across the country will sit down with their customers for year-end reviews.

Holding reviews with customers at the end of each season is an effective way to help them evaluate the results of the season’s agronomic activities, start planning for the upcoming growing season and help to enforce a retailer’s position as a trusted advisor.

Although formats, timing and focuses differ between companies and among individual customers, reviews are crucial to shape decisions for the upcoming season.

Variable Decisions

Aaron Breimer, agronomy manager with Ontario-based farm consulting company Veritas Farm Management, (Veritas) says Veritas agronomy staff meet with virtually all their customers as soon after harvest as possible, to review their agronomy program while the season is still fresh in their minds.

“There are a few core elements, but we tailor the review to each grower,” says Breimer. “Some growers are big picture thinkers and they might want a two-page summary of what went on last year. Some are intense analysts – they might want a 20-page report and I’m allowing four or five hours for the review.”

Along with wanting a different volume of information, Breimer’s customers vary in what aspects of the season they want to focus on. “We’ve got some growers who are really interested in variable rate technology, so we’ll spend a lot of time evaluating that,” says Breimer.

One of those growers is Fred Van Osch, who owns and operates a mixed beef and crops operation with his son, his brother Gerald and his nephew, near Mount Carmel, Ont. The cropping side of their farm consists of 10,000 acres of corn, wheat and dry beans. Running an intensive operation, the family is always seeking ways to optimize efficiency and return of all farm variables.

Van Osch Farms has been working with Veritas for approximately the last four years. In their annual post-harvest review, Van Osch wants an in-depth review of their data and information about the effectiveness and return on their variable rating.

“One of the most important things to me is variable rate seeding. Veritas puts check blocks all through the field and they can measure whether there is a return on our variable rating,” says Van Osch. “They put all the information together for us in the fall, and Aaron tells us what the return was. We need to know that information.”

Van Osch says the comprehensive set of data and information he and his brother receive from Veritas in their annual review is crucial for making the best, educated decisions on their farm the next year.

“We need to have the facts to make proper decisions for the year we’re just starting to plan,” says Van Osch. “We can see results of any soil sampling or plant tissue testing, and we can see trouble spots in the field and decide how we want to address those.”

Engaging Conversations

When Veritas was in its early days, Breimer says they were nervous to address those trouble spots and underperforming fields or acres, because they were unsure how growers would react to the news that they were losing significant money in certain areas.

“When we first started doing reviews, it seemed to us the most positive ones would be the ones where we could show them exactly how working with Veritas made them money,” he says. “But, we found out it was pretty much the exact opposite.”

He says the staff quickly discovered growers were typically not as engaged in conversations about successful fields as they were in conversations about fields that were losing money.

“Growers take a quick glance at the fields that made them money, but the ones that did not make money, they want to delve down into those and dig deeper to understand what is going on there,” says Breimer.

Those discussions are now the first thing on the agenda when Veritas agronomists and customers sit down for a review. By giving the grower practical information about how to improve those areas, Veritas helps growers address what Breimer calls “low hanging fruit.”

“Right away, we tell them, ‘Okay, you’re losing money on these acres. You lost money doing this. What can you do differently?” says Breimer. “It can be scary to sit down with a farmer and say, ‘You just lost 70 dollars an acre on those 400 acres.’ But, they’re really very engaged with those conversations.”

The information covered in a year-end review isn’t brand new to growers, says Breimer. Veritas has ongoing conversations with their customers throughout the season, and have often addressed the review topics, in some capacity, earlier in the year. For Van Osch, having the chance to revisit these items without distractions is valuable.

“Communication today is so easy with the tools that we have. During busy times when crops are growing, sure we’ve got lots of communication, but we’re also busy,” says Van Osch. “We’re just going from one thing to the next. It’s good for the annual review to bring up all of those things that we noticed but didn’t get to focus on.”

Beyond evaluating the performance of their current practices, Van Osch sees the annual review as a chance to ask Veritas for any data and research they have collected on technology and practices that Van Osch Farms is considering integrating into their operation in the coming years.

“Every year we keep pushing the envelope a little more and trying different things,” says Van Osch. “There’s just so much data out there today. Having someone to make it simple for us by summing it all up at the end of the year is really important.”

A Group Review

Depending on the type of service a retailer provides, and their levels of staffing and resources, it may not be practical to conduct one-on-one reviews with each customer. Those retailers can still meet with growers to review the season’s successes and challenges, they just need to shake up the format.

Saskatchewan independent retailer Horizon Fertilizers Ltd. (Horizon) takes a group approach to their year-end reviews. Every year, in the late winter or early spring, 30 to 50 growers attend a presentation covering the results of Horizon’s Field Agronomics Program.

Growers who participate in the program conduct trials on different tools, products and strategies throughout the growing season. During the results presentation, growers can see what worked and didn’t work on their farms and others.

“There’s value in sharing knowledge, trying different things and seeing what works, what doesn’t,” says Chris Yungmann, manager of Horizon Fertilizers Bruno location. “Each year at our results event, we explain why we saw what we saw in the field, or what we didn’t see.”

According to Yungmann, the program is popular with growers because it gives them the chance to get a feel for how products perform and see results based on local conditions. He says the results event is the final piece of the puzzle and creates excitement among customers.

“This is a hands-on approach to show evidence of whether a product works or doesn’t work on the farm,” says Yungmann. “There’s always some discussion that gets going at the results event. If there’s something new and exciting that showed really good results it always creates a good buzz.”

Practical Results

Brian Hergott, who grows 3,000 acres of canola, wheat and barley near Bruno, Sask., finds attending the presentation valuable each year. The chance to compare results from his own farm against neighbors gives him inspiration for the products he wants to try in the upcoming year.

“I love to see the results from all the trials that are done. It’s good to see what works on the farms,” says Hergott. “When we see everybody’s results it piques my interest for what I want to try. Maybe there was something that really stood out so, it makes me think, ‘Hey, maybe I want to give that a shot.’”

When we go to the presentation and we see everybody’s results it piques my interest as far as what I want to try. Maybe there was something that really stood out so, it makes me think, ‘Hey, maybe I want to give that a shot.Brian Hergott

The review also allows Hergott to evaluate his current techniques. In the 2016-17 growing year, he spent five dollars an acre on a nitrogen top dressing to boost protein content in his wheat. At the end of the year, Hergott said it was clear it didn’t pay off.

This year, instead of top dressing with nitrogen, Hergott invested that five dollars an acre into extra nitrogen at seeding. He says once the results are calculated, he is expecting to see a better return on his investment.

“I love to see a big result; a big bang for your buck.” says Hergott. “A lot of times it doesn’t work out that way. So, we switched gears and we put that money somewhere else. But, it was good to try it and review it, because otherwise we wouldn’t know.”

Maximizing Value

Yungmann says Horizon strives to make the annual review as valuable as possible for its growers. To add value, each year Horizon brings in guest speakers on different topics to inform growers about new developments for the upcoming year.

The late-winter timing of the final review is also chosen to maximize customer value. Yungmann says many customers attend the annual Western Canadian Crop Production Show held in Saskatoon in January, making the results event ideally timed to deliver information right when producers are thinking seriously about the next cropping year.

“After the Crop Production Show, growers are typically geared up to start thinking more heavily about topics for the next year,” says Yungmann. “There are usually some specific questions that come out of the show. But, a lot of times growers come in with an open mind and may not have pre-loaded questions.”

For Hergott, the more producers who participate in the in-season trials, the more valuable the year-end review.

“Even though your fields may have different topography, different soil types, it’s still good to see results from neighbors,” says Hergott. “It’s always good to try different things, but there’s only so much you can do on your farm every year. You need to see other results to get a feeling for what you want to try next.”

Valuable Tools

For retailers that haven’t been conducting formal annual reviews with customers or that are looking to change their review process, Breimer recommends they start with setting internal goals. These goals should cover not only what they want customers to get out of reviews, but what they want their company to get out of the process.

Outlining business goals will then influence the direction and format a retailer’s annual reviews take, whether that means bringing a group of growers together to review the season or holding one-on-one meetings with individual customers.

“Make sure you go into reviews with your goals in mind,” says Breimer. “At Veritas, we see annual reviews as a way to really understand the limiting factors on our customer’s land. That’s what we want to get out of it every year.”

Regardless of the format and focus, growers are going into year-end reviews looking for a breadth of information about the success of the products and practices they used on their farms. Delivering easily understandable, applicable information at the end of each season keeps customers coming back for reviews, year after year.

“I think the review is really important. It’s a good tool to be able to look at what paid, crop-by-crop,” says Van Osch. “For us, with the kind of intensive cropping that we do, we need to sit down with the consultant and review. No doubt about it.” 

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