Brian Buford fondly recalls accompanying his dad while delivering seed corn each spring. They would arrive at the customer's farm in a weighted-down truck with multiple bags of seed. The routine was nearly always the same: Chat for a bit and hand the farmer a fresh new cap, a bag of sweet corn for the family's garden and a planting guide before returning home for the next load.
Fast-forward 20-some years later, and the role of the seed dealer has evolved beyond just someone who peddles hybrids and varieties, and sports the company logo. Many farmer-customers demand much more as the risks and costs associated with growing a crop continue to increase. They want a dealer not only knowledgeable in the myriad trait packages and seed treatments available, but also well-versed in agronomic principles such as fertility, soils and weed/insect/disease control.
DEALER BECOMES ADVISER
Seed companies have responded by revamping their dealer networks. Originally, full-time farmers filled their ranks, working part-time to earn extra income during their off-season when they weren't in the field. Many companies transitioned to full-time seed professionals and/or seed advisers who provide services and support to customers throughout the growing season. Firms also started selling seed through retail outlets. And, while retailers today account for about 30 to 35% of all sales, the seed dealer model remains the primary go-to market channel for most seed companies.
"Farmers have so much at stake on every acre," points out Nate Miller, vice president, U.S. Southern Commercial Unit at Corteva. "We believed we needed a full-time professional who was dedicated to deliver the service and support required to represent the Pioneer brand.
"The most important decision within that one cropping year is going to be the hybrid or variety they place on that acre," he continues. "They need a trusted partner -- their dealer -- that's going to bring our technology to life on the farm and make the recommendations the farmer needs to maximize the productivity of that acre."
Trust has always been the foundation for a strong relationship between the dealer and grower. That's even more important today, as seed-buying decisions have grown in complexity, and farmers adopt agronomic practices that influence the performance of that seed and, ultimately, profits.
"Farmers want someone who can advise them and help them be better with their farming operation," stresses Eric Boeck, regional director, North America Seeds at Syngenta. "It goes back to that seed adviser really knowing his customer and helping that customer make decisions to be successful. It requires the dealer to work with and advise the farmer year-round. That requires trust."
Buford's dad was a Burrus Seed dealer for 25 years in northeast Missouri. He followed in his father's footsteps, selling the Burrus brands for five years before switching exclusively to Golden Harvest in 2013. Five years ago, Buford added Wyffels Hybrids to his seed dealership, and it now represents the majority of what he sells.
"Selling multiple brands allows me to gather more information on what is happening throughout the seed industry and hopefully bring those resources back to my customers," he says.
The 34-year-old also farms full-time, contrary to the model embraced by many in the industry. Buford believes his dual role gives him added credibility with customers.
"I take things a bit more personally because I'm in their shoes," he says. "There's a lot more on the line today than there was 30 years ago. It's rewarding when the hybrids and varieties I recommend result in their success, and you also feel responsible when they don't have success."
Buford's curiosity on how to get more out of a crop fits well with the added demands from his seed customers. He likes the challenge of putting together the pieces of the puzzle that increase yield and shares what he learns on his own farm with customers. "I try to emphasize my recommendations based on facts, data and experience, not on sales," Buford stresses. "I make my living farming, and I also sell seed. I'm not going to recommend a hybrid, variety or production practice without the grower's best interest in mind."
All seed companies strive for their dealers to have that same level of commitment and trust with their customers. "Farmers still rely on a dealer that can help them grow their business. They want somebody that cares about them and their business," notes Scott Greenfield, DeKalb Asgrow Deltapine distribution manager. "And, while the scope of knowledge, service and support a dealer provides has changed tremendously, the part that really hasn't changed is the value of that relationship and the trust that goes with it. That's earned."
Kevin Ross agrees. "Everybody has good hybrids," points out the Kahoka, Missouri, farmer. "It goes back to the dealer. It's who you trust. Who is going to do a good job for you and go to bat for you?"
Buford is one of two seed dealers upon which Ross relies. Ross looks for someone who sells a quality product that performs well in his soils and growing environment, and is available to provide advice throughout the growing season.
"Brian is constantly checking with us and monitoring our crops' progress," Ross explains. "He's out scouting his own fields for potential problems. If he sees an issue, he alerts us and is out in our fields to determine if any action is required. We also rely on his knowledge on whether certain hybrids respond to extra nitrogen or a fungicide, for example, to help us decide if an application will pay."
Adding value beyond the seed in the bag is important to Buford. He says that value comes in many forms such as advice on planting population, specialized technology, soils, crop protection, equipment, data analysis and marketing.
"I feel like it's my responsibility as their seed supplier to pool as many resources as possible relative to what issues may arise during the growing season," Buford says. "Staying ahead of potential challenges is the best way to ensure that both myself and my customers have success."
Providing dealers with that level of expertise and knowledge is a high priority for seed companies. Training and education come in many forms, ranging from field days to see firsthand product performance; sessions with company agronomists to learn about the latest crop-production and management practices; deep dives on the launch of new traits and seed numbers; updates during the growing season on potential crop problems and more.
"What we're trying to do is enable our seed dealers and our seed sellers, regardless of the channel they participate in, to be informed to help their farmer customers. We want to empower them to anticipate questions from farmers and any hybrid and variety performance issues that may arise," Corteva's Miller points out.
DEALER OF THE FUTURE
In the highly competitive seed industry, those ever-changing questions challenge companies to constantly look for ways for their dealers to better serve farmers.
"There is going to be a much larger need for farmers to get even better information from their dealers as well as the seed companies," Bayer's Greenfield explains. "That will include greater transparency in areas like logistics so they can track their own seed order and delivery dates. Dealers will need to integrate more data to not only help farmers make the right seed choices but also all the other crop inputs to optimize performance."
Syngenta's Boeck agrees. "Dealers will need to be able to communicate with the farmer in their digital ecosystem. The digital revolution offers every farmer layers of data. Dealers will need to understand that data and provide insights and solutions on not only the seed growers select, but the entire agronomic spectrum on every acre."
Ross looks for those same insights from Buford on his Missouri farm. But, he also knows his success begins with the basics. "You essentially get one shot to get it right each year, and it starts with the seed. Brian is not only our dealer but also a trusted partner and friend. For me, the relationship and trust are everything."
SIX TIPS TO GET THE MOST FROM SEED DEALERS
1. Don't be reluctant to let them be problem-solvers. Look for dealers knowledgeable on agronomic principles and the latest weed, insect and disease threats to crops. They should also be well-versed in trait technology.
2. Maintain accurate field maps of where problems exist so they can custom-fit hybrids and varieties. Accurate data is essential for them to provide the proper recommendations and to have a good understanding of your fields and your management/production practices.
3. Ask what services they provide beyond selling seed (tissue testing, soil tests, etc.).
4. Think beyond traits. Defense mechanisms may not be included in the latest and greatest trait technology.
5. Realize they are selling something. Verify (if possible) results against independent testing.
6. Be sure they have a vested interest in your business. Your success is their success.
-- Write Gregg Hillyer, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, email email@example.com, or follow Gregg on Twitter @GreggHillyer
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