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Baby, it’s cold outside. It’s wintertime in Canada, and the frenetic activity of the agricultural industry has mostly subsided to a dull roar.

Despite a blanket of snow or frost covering the fields meaning reduced activity for Canadian farmers, it’s not quite the same for the ag retailer. Yes, please… take that well-earned vacation.

Go skiing or snowmobiling. Go bask in some warmer climate. Go and vegetate in front of the television. You’ve earned it. But don’t forget that it is also time to start thinking about what your plans are for the upcoming season and beyond.

It’s more complex than merely stating that you “want to make more money.” You could simply follow the same outline that’s been in use these past years, but if that was all there was to it, you wouldn’t need to be making plans to “make more money.”

Taylor Olsen, Operations Manager with Olds Fertilizers & Agri Services in Olds, Alberta—and CAAR Communicator featured Board Member of the month offered his take on winter activities for the ag-retailer. His company provides a wide range of products for the farmer, including fertilizer, grain marketing, crop protection, custom application (for seed, fertilizer, spraying), bulk cereal seed, seed (canola and grass), and grain hauling services.

“The winter planning season is crucial for us to have a successful season. There is no real off-season for us. There are always things to do, regardless of the time of year, and even the winter-time is quite a busy period for us,” explained Olsen. “The farmers aren’t just sitting around watching TV—they are busy planning for next year’s crop, doing pre-buys of crop inputs of fertilizer, chemicals and seed,” he continued. “It doesn’t even begin to slow down for us until the middle of January,” smiled Olsen.

Along with their work with the farmers, the office staff at Olds Fertilizers & Agri Services also work on their game, according to Olsen—talking with growers to learn what their crop plans are for the upcoming season, getting orders and products in place for the season to come, meeting with suppliers regarding their season’s requirements, and gathering more information about the ag industry by attending agronomy meetings and conferences.

“We can’t sit still—we have to be aware of what our farmers want in order to be able to better serve them,” he related. He added: “Our shop staff are always on the go. There’s always maintenance to be performed on all of our field equipment; there’s delivering grain and fertilizer out to farms or hauling it back into our facility storage; there’s yard and plant maintenance—it’s a full-time job to keep things looking good.”

In addition, Olsen noted that his staff also performs about 90-percent of its own truck and field equipment maintenance, including on its delivery trucks and highway vehicles. “It’s difficult—but still necessary—to provide maintenance during the busier times of the year,” said Olsen, “but during the winter is when we are more exacting to better prepare for the season ahead of us.” He continued: “We have a list of trucks and equipment that we go through regarding maintenance and repair. We have a certain number that we are able to work on each year—we don’t want to leave anything too long. We believe in running clean equipment and that takes a lot of work by staff to keep things looking sharp.”

New equipment decisions are also made at this time of year, said Olsen, with yearly budget meetings and discussions with staff as to determining the necessity of a capital investment.

With regards to business planning, Olsen said that talks with its in-house agronomy staff help the company know what products they liked this season, how the products performed, and should they stick with the products or explore options that will work better for their customers and their specific needs.

“We also speak with our ag industry peers and companies rolling out new products,” admitted Olsen, “which helps us all get a better idea of which products are performing well. Communication with other companies helps all of us—so don’t be afraid to tap as many resources as you can. We’re all in this together trying to help farmers get the most out of the products we sell.”

He also said that a deep analysis of the company’s historical projected sales versus actual sales help Olds Fertilizers & Agri Services plan for the future. “It allows us to see where things went wrong and, even better, where things went right. By looking at the historical data, we can create a best-estimate order of supplies and products—a combination, if you will, of the two data points.”

Talking with the sales representatives of the companies they work with is also an integral part of the early planning process. “We appreciate the help and advice we get from all of our industry partners,” said Olsen, adding that constant communication throughout the year is key in learning as much as possible about the products they sell.

“You can’t effectively sell products to customers unless you are armed with information,” he intoned. And it’s the same for new products being rolled out by suppliers, Olsen explained. “We have to speak with both industry peers and companies rolling out new products. We need to examine the products fully to ensure it fits our geography. “We’re in Alberta, which like all parts of Canada, has diverse weather conditions and soil diversity,” Olsen stated. “As such, a product that works best for one of our customers may not work as well for another. We like to keep on top of such things by knowing our customer base as well as possible.”

The customer conversations are a continuous thing throughout the year according to Olsen. “Most of the conversations take place before the new year as growers are trying to finalize their own year-end. But it continues throughout the winter—right up until we start putting seed into the ground next spring.”

He said that while Olds Fertilizers & Agri Services supplies to farmers in the local area, being of global mind is also important. “We do like to examine all aspects of the global ag industry, and do a fair bit of it on our own. But, just like everything else, we also require our industry partners to stay in contact with us regarding global issues that could affect the western Canadian market.”

Olsen advised that, “Just like any business, it is important for the ag retailer to have a long-term plan. In fact, many of our scheduled meetings discuss the long-term plans for the company as well as the near-term schedule and options. “You can’t simply have a once-a-year-chat about long-term business plans,” summed up Olsen. “These must be on-going frank discussions with input from all departments. It’s the best way to ensure your ag retail business is all on the same page about what you are doing and need to do to ensure future success.”

CAAR friend Jim Barclay, the Crop Retail Manager with Hensall Co-op in Hensall, Ontario also shared his thoughts on wintertime time management.

Founded in 1937, Hensall Co-op is one of the largest non-financial co-operatives in Canada, with over 6,000 member-owners and more than 30 available locations in Ontario and Manitoba. It is also part of the WinField United Canada retail network. It has a diverse range of customers across more than 40 countries with operations in food products (edible dry beans and food grade soybeans), grain and ingredient marketing, energy (fuel and propane), animal nutrition and global freight forwarding and logistics.

Barclay said that from an agronomy side, Hensall offers a full-service seed, fertilizer, crop protection products as well custom application services, with a niche area of focus in origination of food grade production for IP soybeans and edible beans.

Agreeing with Olsen, Barclay does not believe there is a “down” time for the ag retailer representative anymore. “Planting season has been extended from April through November,” noted Barclay, “while the addition of cover crops has increased activity between harvest of traditional crops.”

Explaining again that an ag retailer’s work is never done, Barclay said that post-harvest work for the Hensall Co-op includes:

  • Providing edible bean contracting with customers;
  • Food grade soybean contracting with customers;
  • Analysis of previous year – debrief on what went right and where some tweaks in programs are needed;
  • Attending training sessions to keep current;
  • Hosting educational sessions for customers;
  • Attending trade shows;
  • Building Crop Plans with customers, including seed, fertilizer, crop protection;
  • Seed ordering and seed placement with customers;
  • Reviewing of soil tests with customers;
  • Building a demand plan for fertilizer and crop protection needs for the upcoming season;
  • Working with customers to analyze data from Precision Ag projects;
  • Custom application booking programs;
  • Fertilizer booking programs.

“Yes, we keep busy because our customers remain busy,” he said. “But even then, we make time to work on our own business planning: examining historical sales volumes, establishing trends, discussing seasonal conclusions with our other locations, and examining the expected crop mix for the upcoming season.”

He explained that Hensall Co-op always likes to be on the innovative side of things to bring new products and services to their customer base. “This winter season allows us time to dig into plot results, as well as to plan future plots and field-scale demos to further advance any new innovation,” said Barclay. “It’s very important for any ag retailer to diversify their product line and services to match the customer.”

Including suppliers in all new product discussions, Barclay said it is important to understand what the supplier’s marketing story looks like and get a feel of what the impact will be on the market—providing feedback. “We know that for every action, there is a reaction—sometimes not everything is as positive as it might appear at the onset, so it’s in the best interests of the supplier and the ag retailer to understand the product extensively when ordering it.”

Barclay noted that Hensall Co-op begins its equipment preventative maintenance program in the autumn months to determine just what work needs to be done over the winter months to have everything ready for the spring. “Although maintenance at our company is managed corporately, it does involve all location parties, including equipment operators to gain their insight,” Barclay related. “Equipment is a huge capital investment for us and every ag retailer, and so it is only right that it takes priority to ensure it is well-maintained and field-ready.”

Different from most ag retailer set-ups, Hensall is a co-op, so its customers are owners of the co-op. As such, it takes a collaborative selling approach and does its best to understand the needs of its customer base, such as by spending time learning about the past year and then building on it to ensure continuous improvement for next season.

“Although Covid-19 has evolved some of our communications tools, many were in place prior,” stated Barclay. “Moving forward, Hensall is adopting more of a hybrid approach to communications. We realize that not all communications need to take place in person, however, it must still be possible to meet in person when the situation requires it.”

Despite the local nature often inherent of the ag retailing segment, Barclay is adamant that one must stay current on global ag industry trends or risk falling behind the competition.

He cited the company’s own food-grade business as a means to providing greater opportunities to hear and learn about what is going on in other countries, such as the European Union, to prepare for what changes Canada is likely to see here down the road and then to adopt critical planning as required. “We know, as ag retailers that planning is the non-urgent but important part of the sales cycle,” stated Barclay. “But once you have a plan in place, it’s all about executing the plan and adapting it to the upcoming season.”

He noted, however, that planning for many farmers takes place across a crop rotation, and not always a single crop year. “A traditional rotation here in Ontario is corns-beans-winter wheat, as an example. “However, what one does this year for fertilizer and herbicide applications can have implications on what crop you can grow in the subsequent year,” Barclay summed up. “In Ontario, an example would be the herbicide carryover after a dry season and its implications for crop injury.”

The key takeaways as presented by Olsen and Barclay are:

  1. There is no off-season for the ag-retailer. Yes, things may slow down, but there is still analysis of the just past season(s) to better plan for the soon-will-be-here season.
  2. Communication between you and the grower, regardless of how it is performed, should continue throughout the year, regardless of season. It builds trust, confidence and provides both with information to plan better.
  3. Product knowledge gleaned from suppliers has always been important—but communication between growers in your area and your competition peers is also key. See point no. 2 – communication.
  4. Have a plan in place, execute and adjust as necessary. Simply going through the motions of doing things as they have always been done is not the recipe for success. There are always ways and means to gain an advantage.
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