The Agronomist and The Customer

An agronomist’s perspective on interacting with customers

THE CUSTOMER

Agronomists interact with customers in many ways. Taking soil samples, interpreting yield results, planting and harvesting plots and handling product complaints are just a few examples. Most of these interactions are pleasant but certainly not all. If you are genuine in your intentions, that of having their best interests at heart, the day-to-day work comes easy and the customer will appreciate all that you do, even in the worst of times. Too often, sales quotas and chasing the sales bonus often come before what is ultimately the right decision for the customer’s operation.

The adage, “respect isn’t given, it’s earned,” is true for many facets of life. Rural communities thrive on deep-rooted family and church values. Lasting relationships with agronomists that are built on trust can take a great deal of time to develop. Credentials such as M.S., Ph.D. or CCA are often shown on business cards but your performance and attitude dictate whether these titles deserve any more respect than the agronomist without them that has been in the community for 20 years.

In my experience, a well-respected agronomist always takes the time to listen before speaking. For the inexperienced, every meeting with a new customer should be 90% listening and 10% talking. There is so much to learn about new farming operations – the family, the land, the crops, the livestock – all important components that will impact your work. Take notes and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is no embarrassment for jotting down information and letting the customer see that you’re actively engaged. This is equally true for the seasoned veteran. Forgetting or ignoring critical facts, making assumptions, or simply not getting the information correct can lead to bad decisions that will cost the customer and ultimately your reputation in the end.

THE GOOD and THE BAD

The good.  My first job after receiving my M.S. in agronomy was in soil conservation and I held a position in a regional NRCS office. One of the first visits I made was with a cohort who took me on a visit to an ag retailer. I was new and didn’t want to appear over-anxious to engage or show off my knowledge that was now verified and proudly displayed in a frame.

After listening to the conversation for over 20 minutes, the retailer looked over at me and said, “I like you. You’re listening and not trying to inject everything you know into the discussion. You’ll be good.” This has stuck with me for 33 years.

The bad. Ten years later I was on a complaint call for cotton. It was a call where a lot of things were involved – when it was sprayed, products and additives, spray rates and so on. The ultimate claim was that yield would be impacted. (Complaint calls like this one are often emotional since income can be significantly impacted.)

I was assisted by a more experienced agronomist who knew the customer. We listened and asked several questions. I recorded several notes in a field notebook. After about an hour of looking things over I came back and basically asked the same questions again making sure we had it right.

The customer was incensed by this and felt we thought he was lying. Why else ask the same question twice? He called every supervisor he could find a number for, but not me.  We haven’t spoken since.

My cohort told me afterwards that he knew about the customer’s disposition but didn’t think it was important enough to share. I believe I was right to ask and clarify but learned that setting up the additional questioning in a more professional manner might have helped. (“Mind if I ask a few more questions?”)  Might of, I said. 

Remember, relationships matter at all levels of the business but more so in your local community. Too, the customer is not always right and colleagues might not always have your best interests at heart. But it is up to you to decide how you’ll carry yourself in your relationship with customers and peers.

I want you to do well.  ~ph

Photo credit: Iowa State University

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Plots Suck. Part II.

Part I of this series showed that having confidence in the results of a plot matters. It’s asking an awful lot of a 5 or 10-acre strip plot to represent hybrid selection across hundreds or thousands of acres. When seed companies use this method they rely on dozens to hundreds of them to understand how different environments impact hybrid performance. This is commonly referred to as GxE, or genetics by environment. But not every grower manages their crops the same so having different locations introduces another factor – management (M). Now we have a GxExM interaction and you can quickly see how the whole picture of product performance can get muddled (e.g. one grower may apply fungicide or late season nitrogen while another doesn’t). That’s why quality data for an individual plot are critical. The data are important to you for your farm but also think of it as a data link in a decision chain.

Are there other ways of evaluating hybrids? Sure. I personally prefer large strips of 5 or more acres for each individual hybrid being tested. But, the yield has to be checked with a weigh wagon or a calibrated yield monitoring system. Using yield maps is fine as long as the data are of good quality. So what are sources of error that can impact plot results? Here are a few:

Harvest ruts can impact next year’s yield but what happens when a plot entry is planted in this affected area while the others are not?

  • Hybrids planted in the pinch rows (see Plots Suck, Part I).
  • Plot planted last, long after most acres were planted.
  • Placing the plot in a part of the field that results in an entry being planted in an undesirable spot that clearly impacts yield (e.g. an entry happens to be planted in a low spot).
  • Supplied seed has different seed sizes and no adjustments are made resulting in different stands across the plot.
  • Sprayer runs over or “leans over” some of the rows of a single entry but not the same number across all entries in the plot.

It’s not possible to eliminate every source of error. Remember, the goal is to have each entry in the plot treated equally and to walk away at the end of harvest with a high degree of confidence that the results are correct. When we achieve this we can say, “that plot didn’t suck.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless our farmers!

Farmer vs. Agronomist

I am not a farmer. I work with farmers. I am a trained agronomist. (I’m what you call a professional so don’t try this at home.) I have all the answers – most of which are derived driving by fields at 70 mph. I am an “armchair farmer” of sorts, reading articles, published scientific papers, trade magazines and I formulate opinions about the successes and failures of crop production. Of course, I walk fields. Lots of them. My advice is the best advice. I firmly believe that. Do as I say. End of discussion.

I often go out and share my knowledge and wisdom on increasing crop productivity with every grower within listening distance and return back home to the armchair and ponder whether I actually had any impact.  In the couple of months after harvest I will have made presentations to over 500 growers. I’ll know shortly of my influence as planting will commence in the next couple of weeks in south Texas.

How will the farm economy affect their decisions? Will they avoid the temptation to plant before the last spring freeze? Will they keep their crop rotation intact to avoid the yield decline associated with monoculture? Will they take the time to eliminate compaction and ruts left after last year’s harvest? Will they plant my hybrids and plant the recommended seed populations or take somebody else’s advice on what to plant?

More importantly, do they realize that when every grower chases the highest price that over-production and depressed prices are the result? Of course they do. They’re independent growers selling into a global market that they virtually have no control over. And that stinks. As the agronomist, I can only give them advice and knowledge about how to increase productivity. But as a farmer, they often can only do what’s needed to survive another year. And in today’s world decisions are often influenced by their bankers or other financial supporters. And I’m pretty sure very few of them have a degree in agronomy. And that stinks, too.

All the training I’ve had. All the years in the business. All the watching and learning from growers all over the Midwest, the Great Plains and throughout Texas. All the reading, studying and driving by countless fields at 70 mph usually lead me to this conclusion – “I told them not to do that.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!