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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
CRAZY ABOUT FARMING
Farm operator Fred Lukens (far left), Ad Farmers and guests gather at the AdFarm site in Aneta, N.D., to see their own crop as well as this barley field.
What do you do if your bread-and-butter business is providing service to the agricultural industry? Well, if you work at AdFarm, you go farming. Literally.

AdFarm is an agricultural marketing and communications firm with offices in Kansas City, Mo.; Fargo, N.D.; Guelph, Ontario; and Calgary, Alberta. Each year all employees are invited to invest their time and money in two company-sponsored farms, one located a short drive from Calgary and the other near Fargo. This year the Calgary office is growing two varieties of canola, while the Fargo office took a shot at growing winter wheat.

Everyone has the opportunity to buy a stake in the farms on both sides of the border -- $25 each, maximum of four shares per farm -- and to get a taste of what farmers in North America experience every growing season. There's no lack of takers; each office boasts nearly 100 percent participation.

DRIVING DEEPER

"AdFarm is focused exclusively on serving clients in agriculture," says CEO Kim McConnell. "Although many AdFarmers grew up on farms and many are still active farmers, we need to continue to drive deeper to understand the complexities primary producers confront each time they head out to the field. And it's nice to see how our clients' products -- products we help promote -- actually perform."

Rob Saik, president and CEO of Agri-Trend, provides AdFarm with crop insights in their canola field during a recent visit to their farm in Kathyrn, Alberta.
That understanding begins long before any seed hits the ground in early spring. A farm management committee from each office is formed, and they meet with their respective farm cooperator. In Fargo it's Fred Lukens, also an AdFarmer, who farms in partnership with his wife, Jane, and her father, brother and cousin. The Calgary office has a longstanding partnership with Pat Durnin, an owner/operator who manages a large-scale farm. He leases the land to AdFarm and performs the farming operations. Both Lukens and Durnin are known and respected as keen observers of global food trends and how they directly affect agriculture.

After the staffers determine what the year's crop is going to be, talk turns to inputs - seed treatment, fertilizer and crop protection. How much each input costs, operating expenses and labor are all itemized. And it doesn't stop there. What about crop insurance? How, when and where will the crop be marketed? What's the breakeven? How about economic thresholds?

OUT OF THE OFFICE, INTO THE FIELD

"Some years we've made money and some years we've had wrecks. But as shareholders we face the same profit and loss risk as Fred and Pat. We also have gained a much greater understanding of the various farm programs that both governments and companies offer," says AdFarm's Calgary farm manager and public relations manager, Laura Laing.

Leah Brakke, AdFarm's farm coordinator in Fargo, agrees. "The farm is such a great opportunity for the AdFarm team to see first-hand what farmers go through each year," she says.

According to Lukens, the North Dakota farm had its share of real-world experiences this year.

"We finished combining in early August, and it looks like we've yielded around 45 bushels per acres. Test weight is around 60 pounds, but our protein is only 11.4 percent. While our local agronomist tells us that most of his customers had winter wheat in the 20- to 30-bushel range, we needed 73 bushels to break even." says Lukens.

After touring the Calgary farm, AdFarmers and Durnin agreed that swathing should begin the first week of September. Everyone's field-side predictions point to yields to be around 40 bushels per acre for the InVigor® hybrid canola and 34 bushels for the Nexera® character trait canola, which produces Natreon oil, a high-oleic canola oil. But the real yardstick is bottom-line profit, and the Nexera variety pays a $1-per-bushel premium, so the competition is going to be close!

KEEPING THE BRAND PROMISE

Not only working together with local producers, but also having the opportunity to meet and talk with agronomists and company representatives who know the regional soil zones and growing conditions, is an important part of the learning experience for AdFarm shareholders.

However, the farms are just one part of AdFarm's brand promise and commitment to "driving deeper" for its clients. AdFarm "Farm Daze" is a bi-annual event during which the entire staff from each office heads out for two days, touring farms and meeting with local agribusiness leaders and stakeholders.

To keep an ear to the ground on both sides of the border, AdFarm solicits the opinions of farmers as part of its AdFarm Farm Panel, which serves as a connection between AdFarm, the client and the field and provides a means of talking and listening to farmers across North America.

But there is an even deeper commitment to representing agriculture, built partly on the account planning model. AdFarm maintains a full-time employee to provide weekly updates to staff on local growing conditions, weather alerts, market outlooks, new products and programs and much more-a wide-ranging position AdFarm calls "Staff Agrologist." "I highlight trends in the markets, pass on information about field conditions and touch on global demand for North American agricultural products," says Shannon Warren, AdFarm's agrologist. "I'm also the direct connection to the research industry to help keep AdFarm staff and our clients up-to-date on what's happening there."

MAKING DEEPER CONNECTIONS

Driving deeper means adding value to each client interaction at AdFarm. That's why the agency integrates outside industry partnerships into the farm program. For example, on the Calgary farm this year, expertise comes from Agri-Trend Agrology Ltd., a North American agriculture consulting firm. Representatives from the organization joined the Calgary AdFarmers on a recent field trip to view the progress of their two canola fields.

CEO Rob Saik and Senior Agri-Coach Elston Solberg brought along a few tools of the trade to provide an in-field seminar on soil sampling, soil moisture testing, insect scouting and a quick way to check for micronutrient deficiencies.

"I enjoy being able to showcase the degree of complexity and the number of interactions that are involved in making crop decisions throughout the growing season," says Saik. "There are so many factors to consider, and we appreciate being able to profile the number of steps that are involved in carefully planning a crop strategy."

Additionally, Growth Stage Consulting Inc. set the Calgary farm up with an Automata™ Mini-Sat Weather Station to provide AdFarmers with 15-minute weather updates to help predict crop development, plus disease and weed pressure. It is a practical tool that also gives AdFarmers better insights into new agricultural technology.

"I see technology like the in-field weather station will greatly enhance the information pool for North American farm managers and crop consultants," says Mike Giles, Growth Stage's business development manager. "And for a business like AdFarm, this technology will deliver valuable real-time agronomic information across all regions and soil zones, enabling the agency to better target its clients' marketing and communications strategies."

WHERE AG-NESS MEETS AD-NESS

So what's this all mean for AdFarm staff whose day-to-day work is firmly rooted in agriculture but who may bring marketing communications experience from outside the category?

McConnell calls it a balance of ag-ness with ad-ness. "It's that quality that brings together a passion for agriculture combined with the tenacity and determination to create the best marketing communication solutions possible for our clients,"
he explains.

A perfect example of this is Alan MacIntyre, one of AdFarm's creative directors. While farming is a distant part of the MacIntyre family history, Alan hails from an urban environment far removed from the farm.

He says the fundamental difference between communicating with farmers and communicating with other business-to-business consumers is in the category itself.

"There is more to learn about and try to understand in the category of agriculture than in any other I have experienced so far. So the farm and the other resources that AdFarm offers provide a firsthand opportunity to gain additional insight into the target market."

And at the end of the day, it all adds up to delivering communications solutions that resonate more strongly with AdFarm's target audience. AM

Ron Wall is a copywriter with AdFarm.


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