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It is not news to anyone in the agriculture sector that producers need good information to be successful and that those who help to supply it can often garner fiscal rewards. Some new approaches to getting that information in producers' hands are driving sales for several input companies. Growth Stage, Calgary, Alberta, is a business that operates across North America. Its work on predictive modeling is a great example of differential marketing by using information to set brands apart, according to Mike Giles, business development manager for the company.

A computer program created by Growth Stage Consulting provides good predictions of how major crops will develop. The modeling is based on a program called CROP.MANAGEMENT.SYSTEM, also developed by Growth Stage. In 1993, founder Gus Gustavson recognized the industry was challenged to track application windows for the numerous crop protection products being used. The models he created are based on field research and predict plant development by incorporating local weather data, including temperature, precipitation and solar radiation gathered from 1,200 daily weather stations in North America. These reports are then combined with communicating technology to ensure growers get weekly data for their specific area.

Reports are offered for nine different crops from corn and soy to canola and wheat, all based on seeding dates and location. In addition, weed development reports are also offered on 19 different weeds. Other reports include field scouting and weather data, plus the FIELD.TRACKER.SYSTEM that layers crop and weed information together.

To prepare a customized report based on local seeding dates, one need merely visit the Growth Stage Web site at "The user really sets the rules about how and when they get the information," Giles says. In user surveys, further information was requested on insect and disease outbreaks and soil moisture conditions. Growth Stage is responding to these demands by expanding the technology to meet these needs.

The most recent expansion of service is a new pre-seeding weed emergence tool developed in conjunction with Monsanto and the University of Manitoba. By tracking growing degree days, it is possible to assess how a season is unfolding and when to do a pre-seeding burnoff. Insect modeling should follow next.

Growth Stage has offered its service to many companies to send out detailed information on the correct window to apply a specific product. That and other information is clearly sponsored by a client. Giles notes that they have been testing the success of the initiative. "First we want to see if they (producers) have purchased the brand, and second that the proper application of the brand is occurring in the right window." He goes on to report that clients have achieved a 32 percent increase in sales and a 6 to 8 percent increase in product satisfaction with products using Growth Stage tools. "Plus 66 percent of growers feel they can apply product more confidently."

From the perspective of manufacturers, the predictive modeling done by Growth Stage can help develop a product sales strategy. Clearly, agronomy affects agricultural input sales just as it affects farmers' fields. Sales teams can focus on products that will be needed that season due to specific pest problems. As well, the distribution chain can be prepped for the proper application window. It's an opportunity to provide valuable information not only to farmers - but to a company's own decision-making process.


Similarly, AgCall, a sister company to Growth Stage, takes the direct approach, reaching farmers in their homes. AgCall extends the value of direct marketing by using peer-to-peer techniques. The company selects farmers with post-secondary education and trains them in professional sales. These farmers are then contracted to make one-on-one calls with other farmers on behalf of AgCall's crop input and animal health clients. AgCall administers the program and audits it, so clients are aware of the concrete results.

Chris Paterson, U.S. business development manager for AgCall, prides himself on the effectiveness of this kind of direct marketing. In one instance, the company had a generic client for an animal health product. The client was having a hard time breaking into the wholesale level given that a branded product commanded 80 percent of the market. AgCall's team was contracted to drive demand from the farm side and get pull through for the generic. Since that initiative, the animal health client has obtained a 40 percent marketshare.

Further to that, Paterson notes that the audits have shown "90 percent of calls result in a verbal commitment to purchase and 60 percent result in actual purchases." He adds that a Growth Stage information follow-up raised the level of farm acreage that was committed to new products in 40 percent of the cases. "Instead of committing a single field to a new product, farmers were willing to try it on more acreage if they had the extra information."

AgCall and Growth Stage also use their two approaches to direct marketing in tandem. For some clients, the AgCall representatives will meet with farmers, who will then be sent the information from Growth Stage on how crops are developing and the proper application timing. The AgCall team then does follow-up calls at exactly the right time for the buying decision to be made. Its powerful one-two punch shows how direct marketing can work for companies.

Paterson is optimistic that these services can be expanded beyond the inputs sector to other agricultural areas like financial services. For instance, the Growth Stage crop development analysis could allow crop insurance organizations to decide when to incur the expense of sending assessors to examine crops.

It is the unique talent of marketing to not only take new products and extend their sales, but also to take the right tools and extend their use. The techniques of information dissemination and peer-to-peer contact are being retooled continually by these two companies to provide new services to agricultural businesses trying to reach their customers. AM

Robynne Anderson is president of Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Manitoba, which publishes Germination, Pulse and CAAR Communicator.

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