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Answering machine, no answer, busy signal. These are thorns in the side of market researchers today. But while reaching farmers and getting them to participate in surveys is a widespread problem, savvy researchers have developed methods to gain their target audience’s cooperation so they can deliver the data their clients demand.

"It takes a lot more calls to complete a study than it did years ago," says Tom Rodenberg, vice president of Jefferson Davis Associates Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "This is true whether we’re conducting a phone survey, calling farmers to alert them about a mail survey they’ll be receiving or trying to recruit them for a focus group or personal interview."

Fifty percent of the calls Doane Marketing Research Inc. interviewers make to farmers are no answer, answering machine or busy. "But that doesn’t mean farmers won’t cooperate," says Carl Block, president of the St. Louis-based company. "We just have to be more patient, understanding and creative about how we try to reach them."

Bob Pares, vice president of Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., New York, reports that the declining response rates of farmers mirror trends in overall consumer cooperation with surveys. "Everybody is working harder and not getting enough downtime," he notes. "People are not cooperating as much with things that are not a priority. As a result, researchers need to try new ways to boost cooperation and show farmers how they will benefit by participating in surveys."


More farms with larger acreage is a major contributor to declining survey response rates. "We almost always need to talk to those farming large acreages or with large animal numbers," Block says. "Running large operations requires more time and management skills and takes time away from answering surveys."

But targeting large farmers has advantages. "While the farm population as a whole is shrinking, the large farmer segment is increasing," Rodenberg reports. "And the bigger farmers - for instance, producers who farm 500 or more acres of corn - are the ones we’re focusing on."

He adds that large farmers are smarter these days and respond to surveys about important issues. "They will offer input about possible changes to a product’s formulation, the marketing channel or who will work directly with them, such as a company’s agronomists," Rodenberg says. "Farmers benefit by answering these surveys so they can steer things the way they want them to go."

Pares says farmers are more likely to participate in studies that ultimately will save them time, make them money or make them look smarter. "They expect that in the age of target marketing, money that companies spend on research is passed along to them in price," he says. "If they can help companies gather information and answer questions about communications, advertising and other topics, money will be saved along the line."

When companies need to target smaller specialty segments such as fresh tomato growers, they may need to alter their methodology. "Instead of doing a phone survey, we might go out and conduct executive interviews with 20 producers," Rodenberg says. "We’ll end up reaching the majority of crop acres in the segment we’re targeting."

If companies are focusing primarily on large farmers or calling on small specialty segments, are these groups being oversurveyed? Researchers don’t think so.

"We don’t hear many complaints from farmers that they are being called too often," Rodenberg says. "They may be receiving more sales calls, but not as many research-related calls."

He points out that the number of survey calls made to farmers may be going down because more companies are doing syndicated work, such as tracking studies conducted for five or six crop protection firms. "Farmers end up receiving one phone call instead of a half-dozen."


To combat declining response rates, researchers are paying incentives a lot more than they used to.

Doane always uses an incentive and lets farmers know up front what it will be. For a focus group, the incentive usually is cash. For a phone interview, it ranges from a transistor radio, calculator, or toll-free calling card to cash. The company even has a catalog system whereby farmers in their database who agree to be called on a periodic basis to complete a survey can accumulate points toward a reward.

When conducting its Starch FARMS survey, Roper Starch often includes a $2 bill as a thank you and enters respondents into a sweepstakes for cash prizes. "The best response rate for the minimum cost is to send cash with a mail survey," Pares says. "For some phone surveys, we let respondents know they’ll receive a $5 check or that money will be donated in their name to charity."

Rodenberg states that they pay farmers to complete a survey. "Most of our clients expect that, especially when the studies are demanding and we’re asking respondents to do a lot more."

Paying incentives to respondents, higher refusal rates and having to make numerous phone calls to get farmers to respond to surveys are increasing the cost of doing research. But it’s a worthwhile investment. "Agribusiness needs this information to make good decisions about the products they offer and the way they communicate with farmers," Block says. "It’s a necessary cost of doing business." AM


Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.

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