Taking temperatures of employees when they arrive. Looking for different ways to recruit seasonal drivers. Waving, not shaking hands or catching up, in the yard when picking up crop chemicals.
Those are just three examples of how COVID-19 has changed business for ag retailers this spring.
Three leaders in ag retail joined a panel moderated by AgPro editor, Margy Eckelkamp, in early April. Amy Asmus with Asmus Farm Supply, Harold Cooper of Premier Ag, and Henry Holloway of The Mill shared their experience and takeaways from helping farmers get off to a strong start in 2020.
Cooper says that his team was looking to catch up from a carryover of field work that didn’t get done in 2019.
“Once you get behind, it has a tail all the way through harvest,” he says. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s worked with his team to create an environment where they can continue to work and get their jobs done. They even made their own hand sanitizer when their supplies ran out.
“I’ve reminded farmers to take care of themselves, and that they are their workforce,” Cooper says.
Holloway, whose footprint is in Maryland and Pennsylvania, says the weather has created some ideal conditions at their start of their spring as well as strong demand in their row crop business. His focus has been on keeping customers and employees healthy.
At The Mill locations, they’ve limited the number of customers who can be in the stores at any time. And long-term he thinks we’ll see even more use of e-commerce, which has spiked nearly 20 times higher for the business so far this spring. Specific to their in-store retail and consumer business, he eyes Amazon and Chewy.com as the main competitors, and he aims to have a competitive advantage over those options now and in the future.
Cooper sees farmer customers seeking “safe harbors” right now in ag retail partners who can provide them with reassurance that they can continue to serve them no matter the obstacles thrown their way.
Asmus says her team has adopted new practices and policies and technology has been a tool in doing so.
“We’re at go time, doing our full-time jobs, but also figuring out how we do the extra stuff,” she says. “We have e-commerce. We’ve used that to cut down on the [in-person] conversation a grower would have across the desk from an agronomist. Now, if they want to research something or refer them to a label, we refer to the site–Not necessarily for purchases, but as a communication tool.”
Asmus also reports she is not currently worried about 2020 supplies, which the company has most on-hand and in inventory already.
“We have great partners, and partners look out for each other,” she says. “We have to be very careful and not allow panic buying. Growers are asking about supplies for next year, and we need to tell them “no.” We don’t want to stress the supply chain. We need to control products because you can’t return them the following year if we don’t know storage conditions and temperatures that they were overwintered. We also don’t want to push economic hardship on growers by pushing input costs for two cropping seasons into one.”
Cooper and Holloway both note increased demand in the feed sector that is stressing the current supply chain.
“We have seen trouble with feed. Our own hogs [part of their SwineLInk division] were fine. But on the consumer side, the amount of volume we moved through the last six weeks is triple if not quadruple as normal,” Cooper says.
Holloway says they’ve worked to give feed mills as much lead time as possible.
“The mills have increased 20 to 30% with what they produce in a week. And if we’ve given them lead time, we have had no issues,” he says.
One positive note regarding moving product right now, Holloway reports all of their fertilizer is brought in by truck, and due to the lack of traffic in his highly populated area, the truck drivers are able to make faster turnarounds.
The panelists answered attendee questions, such as if they project an increased number of farmer customers going out of business because of COVID-19 and what product categories they think may see an increase in sales in 2020.
Also, before the session started, the audience was asked “What do you think are the top two resources farmers use to learn about new agricultural products?” And the top two answers were ag dealers/retailers and ag magazines/newspapers.