By Jennifer Barber
Successful ag retailers know there’s much more to their businesses than selling product and filling tanks. Today, innovative ag retailers like AGRIS Co-op work closely with everyone connected to its business to make sure it brings suppliers and farmers together to share knowledge and drive innovation.
Recently celebrating 100 years in business, AGRIS Co-op has been serving the needs of growers with 10 locations throughout southwestern Ontario. It is 100 per cent farmer-owned, with over 1,000 farmer owners. It provides grain marketing and farm inputs that include technology, seed, agronomy and fuel services. AGRIS is also partnered with grain marketing company, Great Lakes Grain.
“We provide our farmer owners with a full agronomy strategy that takes them from one season to the next to add value to their business,” says Dale Cowan, strategy manager and senior agronomist at AGRIS, based in Chatham, ON. “We work with them to help make complete decisions, providing everything from soil sampling and geographic information, system mapping to resistance management strategies. We have a full team of agronomists that help them plan by field, by crop and by product. We also communicate with our suppliers so that what farmers need, what the market requires and what we need for them, is reflected in new product offerings.”
RESPONDING TO CHANGE
Cowan says that, over the years, the needs of growers have changed and AGRIS has had to respond. Issues such as shifts in climate, weed resistance, labour availability, regulation and market volatility have forced growers to continually adapt, so the retailer works to help customers create integrated approaches.
“What really matters in the end is if the crop is going to be profitable, so whatever the cost is to produce the crop needs to be balanced against the price for the crop” DALE COWAN STRATEGY MANAGER AND SENIOR AGRONOMIST AGRIS CO-OP
“When you have a lot of uncertainty the most important thing to remember is what are your goals for the end of each year, or each business period,” he says. “When you know your goals then you have to determine a path forward to reach those goals and deal with whatever obstacles are in your way. It’s our job to help provide (farmers) with the knowledge they need to remain agile, to make game day decisions when necessary.”
With grower concerns about increased costs, one of the most important pieces of advice he offers is to make sure soil tests are no more than four years old, which he says is an integral part of 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices — applying the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place, which lets the world know that the crop has been sustainably grown.
“When we have that kind of information, what we suggest is descriptive, predictive and prescriptive — not reactive,” Cowan says. “What really matters in the end is if the crop is going to be profitable, so whatever the cost is to produce the crop needs to be balanced against the price for the crop.”
TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS FOR BETTER EFFICIENCY, CONNECTIONS
AGRIS closed its retail outlets to in-person customer and supplier visits during the height of the pandemic, and moved to remote delivery, which was challenging in a highly personalized business. However, recent widespread adoption of digital technology made the switch easier.
“We missed seeing our customers a lot, but we were surprised at how efficient we got, and how quickly we were able to become organized in a digital environment,” says Cowan. “We don’t want to lose that one-on-one contact any time soon, but we gained some efficiencies that I think are good for all of our businesses.”
Farmers are gathering tremendous amounts of digital data through their farm equipment and systems such as Climate FieldView, and AGRIS is working closely with farmers and suppliers to decide what they can do with all of that information, says Cowan. AGRIS’s MyFS digital dashboard allows its customers to view their account information as well as farming information such as crop plans, soil test results and yield maps all in one place.
“We are streamlining the relationship between us, our suppliers and our customers so that information is more accessible and more usable,” says Cowan.
THE FARMER-RETAILER SUPPLIER FEEDBACK LOOP
“AGRIS Co-op is a very important partner for us,” says Bill Lester, territory sales manager with Bayer. “AGRIS is a leader in the retail market and is always looking to the future for its customers. The company supports our business on all levels, and we work together very well.”
AGRIS is not just a retailer of Bayer products, it is a true business partner, says Lester, and that relationship continues to grow as the feedback loop becomes more engaged through digital frameworks. AGRIS has been ahead of the curve in introducing and launching Bayer’s newest traits and technologies, and it runs an extensive DEKALB plot trial program every season, he adds. The company is also a market leader in adopting new application technology such as variable rate application of fertility and crop protection products.
It is a relationship that has direct benefits for farmers. “Dale Cowan has a strong influence because he knows what solutions to recommend to his customers,” says Lester. “We go to AGRIS first with new initiatives because we get extremely valuable feedback and input on our new offerings. AGRIS tells us when things need tweaking and helps inform us in our strategies. When we are in alignment in what the farmer needs it helps us grow better and faster.”
AGRIS helps its customers adopt and use new digital platforms and tools such as Climate FieldView, says Lester. “The company saw that FieldView could speed up processes, in particular its fertility recommendations. AGRIS showcases information on a field-by-field basis and helps fine tune fertilizer needs to optimize application, which is an important stepping stone in many farmers’ stewardship programs.”
Cowen recognizes the speed with which Bayer has been able to develop solutions in recent years, and he says he feels that communication is key to making sure what he learns from the field is translated into new developments from Bayer.
“I think Climate FieldView has been an important tool for facilitating that change,” he says. “It provides everyone with realworld, real-time data and helps Bayer be more responsive to what farmers are dealing with. It’s a good format for communicating what the pressing needs are on both a local and broader scale.”
AGRIS has developed its own digital strategy that is transparent, integrated and focused on training and developing its own staff to help its customers. “In the next 10 years, the environment is going to be more and more digitized, and it’s important for us to have staff who are comfortable helping growers make that change,” says Cowan. “There is no option but to move forward, but to move forward you need to have staff, and the support from suppliers, who can help integrate the tools for people doing the work. That’s where having a strong partnership works.”