Hunter Grain Agronomy
Headlines throughout 2016 announced the same depressing trend for farmers: falling grain prices.
While 10 years ago, a series of alternating droughts and floods had some market experts worried there wouldn’t be enough grain to feed a growing global population, the opposite now seems to be true. The global supply of most grains has risen as dry South American countries like Argentina and Brazil export more, and big importers, like China, seek to buy less.
While the abundance is a good thing for humanity, it’s harsh news for American farmers, for whom a one-cent drop in prices can mean substantial profit losses. That, in turn, affects the co-ops serving the farmers.
Austen Cole, agronomy manager at Hunter Grain co-op in Hunter, North Dakota, is well-acquainted with the challenges of falling grain prices. North Dakota has one of the nation’s smallest overall populations, yet one of the highest concentrations of agricultural workers, meaning small shifts in the market affect big swaths of the state.
The challenge for Cole is providing the best possible equipment and products, while understanding that growers are on a budget. More than ever, he says it requires a “boots on the ground approach.” By meeting farmers face-to-face, he says it’s easier for his three-person agronomy division to tailor its approach and products.
Boots on the ground
Cole heads the division that sells dry and liquid fertilizer, commercial seed, crop protection chemicals, application services, assessments and soil sampling. He’s been there for three years and says Hunter Grain is farmer-owned and has been since 1925. Cole says his department takes a “boots on the ground” approach that emphasizes building relationships.
“We like to get out in front of farmers and not just call them or slip them ads in the mail,” Cole says.
In some cases, he’ll send team members out to assess a farmer’s field and offer agronomy suggestions for free. This close contact helps Cole and his team stay current on what each farmer needs, especially during the winter months when planning happens. Though he reaches out to farmers to offer services, he never pressures them or asks them to buy something without understanding it first.
“If I’m selling a product I believe in, my job is to show farmers why I believe in it and how it will make them money,” Cole says. That includes reaching out to vendors for samples for co-op members and then following up months later to see how the products are working. To help members get the most out of new products, Cole will invite vendor representatives to the co-op to put on demonstrations and hold informational meetings.
The agronomy department holds a series of three such meetings every winter, each year focusing on a new company or product. A recent series focused on Winfield’s R-7, precision agriculture tool—software that uses satellite information to provide important seed placement and soil fertility data.
Holding these informational meetings is important because, like prices, agronomy products are affected heavily by the weather, meaning that a chemical may not work as well on a hot humid day as on a cooler day.
This can be important in North Dakota, which experiences some of the greatest temperature and weather variety in the U.S., fluctuating from subtropical summers to sub-zero winters. In the eastern part of the state, where Hunter is located, the climate is humid and subject to irregular currents and pressure systems from Canada, meaning a storm may always be around the corner.
In this unpredictable environment, Cole says his department provides dependability. “We want repeat customers,” he says. “And the way to get people coming back to us is to reach out and create value for them.”
Still, Cole understands that the slow economy makes farmers hesitant to spend money on anything other than what’s tried and true. They tend to "hunker down," spraying cheaper products and using fewer types of treatments to fight weeds.
Cole, who grew up on a farm, says there's nothing wrong with keeping a tight budget, but not spraying crop protection chemicals thoroughly can lead to weeds creeping up in neglected areas. In some cases, a single weed can carry over a million seeds, which in turn are scattered by the wind and harvest and tillage equipment, sowing problems years down the road.
"I encourage them to not just look at the price tag," he says.
Instead of spraying just once or twice a season, he encourages farmers to use pre-emergent chemicals to block weeds before crops start growing and to follow up with post-emergent products.
He’s confident that a newly developed dicamba tolerant soybean trait from Monsanto will become popular for farmers using the herbicide dicamba as an alternative to glyphosate, which was used heavily for years.
Still, Cole says agronomy is continuous and every treatment temporary. His job isn’t to erase problems, but to help farmers find alternate ways around them.
“No matter what you try, Mother Nature is king,” he says, winning “every battle.”