Ag Retailer Of The Year: Business Led By Advising

In the late 1950s, Harvey Asmus saw an opportunity to offer farmers options to resolve existing challenges with a new technology—synthetic chemical pest control.

“The implementation of this idea was difficult because it was dramatically different than the normal practices of the time,” says Harlan Asmus, Harvey’s son. “But persistence and determination paid off, the benefits of the technology were realized by the customer, and Asmus Farm Supply was born.”

In the first year for the company, Harvey ran his business out of his pickup. Today, Harlan and his wife, Amy, are co-owners of the business, and Asmus Farm Supply (AFS) operates five company-owned stores in Iowa and Minnesota. In total, with 11 commission-based sites, the company, which is headquartered in Rake, Iowa, serves farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska. AFS has been named the Agricultural Retailers Association 2017 Retailer of the Year.

Focused Business. AFS has four product departments: seed, seed treatment, chemistry and crop protection, and plant nutrition.

While being focused on products and services, Harlan explains the five core values that drive the business: integrity, honesty, detail-oriented, customer-focused and teamwork.

“My father started with a mission to offer choices,” he says.

AFS currently sells products from all major crop protection manufacturers as well as many specialty and generic manufacturers. For its plant nutrition portfolio, the company focuses on liquid products. And each location sells a different offering of seed brands.

“We will represent all products to our fullest ability to answer the problem the farmer has,” Harlan says. “We work to strike a balance of taking a portfolio through our agronomy staff to the customer without dictating what answers the agronomy staff offer to a grower.”  

Asmus family

Consultative Selling. The company’s mission statement is as follows: consulting clients with sustainable recommendations to maximize production.

All AFS salespeople are Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs). It’s common for AFS customers to have up to four agronomists consulting on their farms—each focusing on one area of AFS services.

Amy explains the CCA program ensures that agronomists have a focus area but are also well-rounded with knowledge of crop development, soil and other production aspects. 

“Every CCA agrees to an ethics statement and commits to continuing education, and both of those things are extremely valuable to our business,” she says.

 

Adviser And Supplier. “While we offer multiple solutions based on multiple product platforms, we focus on the self-applied grower,” Harlan says. “For those customer-partners, we aim to distribute products and chemistry to make it efficient and safe for them to apply products.”

The business’ focus has developed into its strength, Amy says.

“Retailers have different strengths, and ours is our focus,” she says. “We have developed the strengths we have, and we develop partners. We don’t do application. We don’t do soil sampling. We don’t try to be the only partner our growers have. ”

Those partners include custom-spray and aerial applicators. Product choice and product availability are key benefits of working with AFS, according to Joe Larson, who farms and operates Friesenborg & Larson aerial and custom application in Buffalo Center, Iowa.

“They always have a product on-hand,” Larson says. “And as a custom applicator, they make it easy to figure out billing for our customers. For example, when we have a partial job, we can easily figure out how much chemical was applied for each farmer, and Asmus bills them accordingly.” 

Aerial Asmus Farm Supply Rake Iowa

Generations Of Business. During the past 60 years, the company has expanded its footprint and continued to serve loyal customers. Some farm operations have been AFS customers for three generations, and AFS now has third-generation members of the Asmus family engaged in the business.

Harlan and Amy’s sons work in the Rake office. Holden leads the seed treatment department and is a CCA. Garrett is the financial executive assistant. Holden’s wife, Billie, does marketing and communications. 

As Frost, Minn., farmer Claire Olson reflects, his farm had 400 acres when it started doing business with AFS in 1974, and today, he farms more than 5,000 acres. His first salesperson with AFS was Harvey, and he’s worked with Harlan and now works with Holden.

He’s confident AFS advises on the right chemical and the right decision.

“With resistant weeds, they have helped us understand the different modes of action. And sometimes, if I’m doubting if something is the right thing to do, I’ll call, and they are also quick to help,” Olson says.

And during its time in business, the company itself has changed a lot—in transformative ways. 

“When tank mixes got more complex with up to seven products in the tank, customers were asking for more information and support,” Harlan says. “We turned the company into a knowledge-based company. We led with our knowledge.”

One example is with every receipt, AFS provides a print-out with the order to mix the chemicals.

“When we are ready, we just roll and spray. They make it easy to do what we need to do,” Olson says.

Amy says knowledge has been a conduit for sales, but the business will continue to evolve.

“For a long time, we have given away knowledge to make a sale. Going forward, it will be important for retailers to unhook knowledge and product sales. We are trusted advisers, and at some point, that will be a product itself,” Amy says.

 

Self-Study. For five years, AFS has conducted its First to the Field trials. Before any new practice or product is marketed by AFS, the company does a multiyear, multisite plot program. In the first year, the protocol is put on the family’s own ground, which spans a 2,500-acre row-crop farm.

If the product or practice looks promising, then the AFS agronomists put out five to eight plots with their farmer-partners in the second year. If the product or practice passes the protocol, then it’s ready for commercial launch in the third year. The team evaluates yield results as well as in-season plant development, such as pod count or standability.

“We take products as they are pitched to us and then educate ourselves on how it may work in our geography,” Amy says. “Having local field data has especially been helpful with our plant nutrition division and biological products.”

First to the Field includes five products every year. Two successes from the program include Accomplish in-furrow and Brandt Smart Trio.

Amy explains that AFS reports First to the Field results in a dedicated e-newsletter, and within 30 minutes of sending one report, three growers had called with questions.

 

The AFS Brand. As the family business expanded, Harlan and Amy worked for AFS locations to carry the same characteristics.

“The keys for an AFS location are a nice updated office and a clean organized warehouse,” Amy says. “Also, you’ll find a kitchen and a gathering space.”

She says the facilities are for the employees and the farmers. For example, at the Rake office, the team, which totals 23 employees, regularly gathers for lunch in its kitchen.

“Having things tidy is nice for the grower—it shows we are safe, we manage our inventory, and it gives the customers a great experience from the time they walk in the door and drive off the lot,” Amy says.

At the Estherville, Iowa, location, a new chemical warehouse was built four years ago. It allowed the first offering of the plant nutrition division at this location. The series of heated and cold warehouses are laid out to provide ease in inventory management but also ease for the customer. One-way traffic flow means no trailer has to be backed out after being filled with product.

Similar to efforts at the Rake office and other locations, Estherville manager Brent Baddeley organizes farmer breakfast meetings every week in the winter. They include agronomic and nonagronomic topics, such as estate planning, insurance and marketing.

 

Product Delivery. As the company has outfitted its bulk storage with automation systems, it has equipped the facilities with similar technology, so if employees needed to transfer between locations for any reason, then they would be familiar with how to operate the systems.

At the Rake facility’s plant nutrition division, an upgraded building was finished in 2013, and it features full automation.

“With custom-blend capabilities, we can really fit any farmer’s needs from nitrogen to micronutrients,” says Cody Wirtjes, sales agronomist. “We mix what the farmer needs, when they need it. And true to our mission, agronomists will recommend a dry product, even though we don’t sell it.”

 

Technology Innovator. All AFS warehouses have Wi-Fi. This helps with implementing a technology in which AFS is a joint venture partner—SecureTracs. The company has 8,400 tanks in the web-enabled app, which can track a tank through its entire service.

The SecureTracs system details what product was in the tank, who loaded it, who received it and when it was returned with a “check-in” inspection and notes. The system helps track that a tank has been triple-rinsed. The SecureTracs code is on the label, on the tank and correlated with the tank number.

“SecureTracs started with EPA repackaging regulations, and as a company, we maintain our own fleet of asset tanks. The system has given us and our customers assurance of how these tanks are being used. We also serve food-grade oil customers with this product,” Amy explains.

Additionally, the company has created a car wash for bulk tanks. A warehouse manager designed a protected area outfitted with spray nozzles. The tote rotates on a turntable as it’s rinsed.

 

Environmental Stewardship. “We talk a lot about sustainability and stewardship, and everyone has their definition. We steward products. Sustainability, I think, is about the long-term environment. I steward nitrogen in the 4Rs, so our soil and water quality is sustainable,” Amy says.

She says sustainability has to be forefront in the industry’s mind for pest management and nutrient management.

The company has invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency. In Rake, the warehouses total 50,000 sq. ft. of heated space, and overhead fans save 700 gal. of LP every week by keeping a 1-degree difference between the floor and ceiling.

Also, most of AFS’ facilities have geothermal heating and cooling systems for at least part of their footprints.

 

The Future And Family. “We are passionate about family, ag and business,” Amy says. “AFS is very customer-focused. We like to sit down with individual growers as much as possible. Everyone who works with AFS is part of our big family. And we care for their families. Just as a small example, we provide uniforms for all employees—it’s for their safety, so they don’t mix work clothes with the family’s laundry.”

Bil Schrader was the first non-family member hired, and he’s still with the company today as the seed department manager.

Every other year, the company organizes a team-building trip to a destination resort. Half the team goes on the trip at a time, so business can continue, but the team can take part in activities together as a group.

“I’m excited AFS will be here for the long term, and we passionately care about the industry down to the field level,” Harlan says. “We have been able to accept, adopt and accelerate change. The company has changed to keep with the times and technology and grown to service more customers.” 

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