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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

This monthís column is about watching corn grow in a cornfield and at a baseball stadium. Before you start making wisecracks about how boring this column usually is anyway Ö give me the benefit of the doubt and read on.

Sports and agriculture. Iíve discussed with clients for years how these two areas are intertwined in the fabric of rural America. Iíve created sports crossword puzzles in a farm magazine for clients, tried to convince ag companies to sponsor high school sports events on a statewide basis, and helped create a salute to ag and baseball at a major league game.

Thatís why I was so intrigued by Jeff Lacina, public relations manager at Garst Seed Company and AgriPro Seeds. He created a couple of nifty PR and promotional programs around, you guessed it, watching corn grow, and he did it in partnership with Iowa Farmer Todayís CornCam and the Iowa Cubs (Triple A baseball affiliate of the Chicago Cubs). Before you fall asleep with boredom, letís get into it. Just kidding!

CORNCAM.COM

The concept is rather simple: plant a corn seedling and watch it grow through harvest using a camera. The details are a bit more complicated. Jim and Sharon Greif of Prairieview Ag Supply, a retail outlet in Prairieburg, Iowa, that sells Garst and AgriPro seeds, are hosting CornCam. The concept of watching corn grow is in its second year there. Regarding soybeans, AgriPro Seeds is sponsoring Iowa Farmer Todayís SoybeanCam, debuted in the summer of 2000.

"Obviously, this is a major public awareness campaign," says Lacina. "Iím always challenged to come up with ways to sell more bags of seed. Thereís only so much you can do without being a regular salesman. CornCam is a great tool to educate secondary audiences, find some new customers and itís a point of pride for our sales force. It differentiates us from the competition."

I suppose youíre already wondering how to view corn growing on the Internet. The weekly newspaper Iowa Farmer Today has two Web sites: www.iowafarmer.com and www.corncam.com. It has three Web cams: CornCam, SoybeanCam and DairyCam.

Dan Zinkand, crops editor with Iowa Farmer Today, says there are many promotional benefits for his magazine to be involved in this project. But he sees a bigger picture here. "I think the whole miraculous nature of growing a crop every year gets lost among us and consumers," he says. "We have incredible seeds that are products of scientific research and these seeds get planted and harvested, often with the assistance of computers and global positioning systems. This science and technology often obscures what is truly a miracle - that you can stick a seed in the ground and lo and beyond, you may end up with more than 700 kernels on an ear of corn."

Zinkand goes on to says thereís a tremendous disconnect today between consumers and farmers, and farmers and consumers. "I canít tell you the number of e-mails I get from the public who express their admiration and respect for what farmers are doing. And all weíve got to elicit that response from them is an image of corn on a Web site. In the wake of what happened last year with StarLink, CornCam gave corn farmers and the corn industry something very positive."

Zinkand estimates that up to 30 percent of those who log on to the Web sites are in production agriculture of some kind. Lacina instituted a more detailed system this year to determine how many Web site visitors are potential customers. When a visitor registers, he/she is separated into three categories: "I Grow Corn," "I Help Producers Grown Corn," and "I Just Like to Eat Corn."

Garst is also giving away t-shirts, mugs and some Iowa gift baskets for some non-farmers outside of Iowa. "What CornCam is selling is the lifestyle of Iowaís corn and soybean farmers," Lacina says. "Itís a home on the Internet for displaced Iowans. They can see a part of their life they miss and no longer have."

The sponsorship with Iowa Farmer Today includes multi-column display and classified ads that are used on an "as-available" basis in the magazine and banner ads on the Web site. Zinkand has written about CornCam in Iowa Farmer Today magazine as well and many articles have been published about it, including an Associated Press story. Other CornCam articles this year include The Christian Science Monitor and Edmonton Journal. Reuters (May 2000) and the Wall Street Journal (May 2000) mentioned it last year and National Public Radioís "Morning Edition" covered it in August of this year. CornCam also was one of three Web cams mentioned in the inaugural "Web cam" feature NBC Nightly News launched last July. The Tonight Show producers have called about it, although it hasnít made it to Jay Lenoís list of items and issues to joke about on late-night television.

"Iím incredibly pleased with the promotion this year," says Lacina. "From a public relations standpoint, it makes people aware of our company and our products. From an industry standpoint, itís been phenomenal in educating the public about food issues. The more people we can get to understand us as producers the better."

IOWA CUBS

"Itís always great to offer our regular clients Ďadded valueí to what they do with us," says Gary Wergin, farm director of WHO Radio, Des Moines, Iowa. "Itís even nicer when what we do is fun."

Wergin is speaking about a promotion between WHO and Garst involving giving away seats to Iowa Cubs games through a contest called the "Garst Guy Field of Dreams Seats." The seats are in the second row, right behind home plate. As Wergin puts it, "Weíre closer to the catcher and batter than the pitcher is in these seats."

The Garst promotion not only involved the work of Wergin and others at WHO, but also entailed planting corn in front of Sec Taylor Stadium, where the Iowa Cubs play their home games.

The whole program kicked off (is that a baseball term?) early in the season at an afternoon game, where Wergin and his partner Mark Pearson did their noon show from the Garst seats (Bob Uecker would have been proud.) "We did our remote from the park and had fun poking fun at the business suits hard at work in this beautiful park," Wergin recalls from the late May show. "After that, through the season, we offered those same seats we were in to active farmers. I can tell you, we had no lack of calls. The phone lines lit up rapidly every time we gave away tickets on the air." During the promotion, Lacina adds, James Earl Jones bellows out, "Thereís one constant in life and itís baseball," from the movie "Field of Dreams."

It appears Garst, WHO and baseball fit as easily as Derek Jeter fielding a routine grounder at short. "With the size of our market, we constantly look for ways to bridge the gap between farm and city," Wergin says. "With the Field of Dreams concept with the Iowa Cubs, weíve got that angle covered. This is a promotion where everybody wins."

Meanwhile, back on the field (or actually at the front of the stadium) Garst 8550 was planted in four rows in early July. Despite the terrible soil (the stadium is built on an old city dump) and late planting date, the corn filled out nicely. The small plot was enhanced with Iowa corn facts and Garst field signs.

There was no sponsorship fee paid by Garst, but for 2002 that may change. "This came together at the last minute," Lacina says. The teamsí PR staff did their own publicity and Baseball Weekly picked it up, and the day the corn was planted two radio stations covered it (our president, George Dubbya was in Des Moines that day).

As you might recall, former network news executive Michael Gartner is the owner of the Iowa Cubs. His seats are right in front of the Garst seats. "Iíve already been hit up by him for fence signage and planting the corn inside the stadium next year," Lacina adds.

Although this promotion is pretty regional, Lacina reminds us that Iowa is Garstís leading state in corn sales and, as an experiment this year, it might be the beginning of similar efforts in other leading Garst states. "Iíve already been hit up from other ballparks in other states," he concludes. AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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