Cooperative Producers Inc.

Agronomist consultants find solutions buried in the soil
Written by: 
Michael Schoch
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

Growers use combines, planters and sophisticated software to improve yields, but agronomist Phil Ramsel says the most important tool in agriculture is the right information.

Ramsel is vice president of agronomy at Cooperative Producers Inc., a farming cooperative headquartered in Hastings, Nebraska, and serving farms throughout central Nebraska and parts of Kansas. His agronomy department sells seed genetics, fertilizer, crop protection chemicals, traditional agronomy services, and precision agriculture services.

Cooperative Producers Inc.

Ramsel says quality agronomy information is more important than ever as farmers look for strategies to save time and become more profitable during a slow commodities market, which, some economists say is the result of a 15 year “super cycle” that began with rapid growth, but has declined since 2012.

To help farmers weather the economy, Ramsel trains his salespeople to be consultants who can not only sell agronomy inputs, but can advise farmers on how, when and why to position and apply them.

Where sales and consultancy meet

In order to give the best information, Ramsel says agronomists at CPI spend “about 80 percent of their time at the farm and in the field,” brainstorming with growers on how to anticipate problems and spot opportunities. It’s also time spent helping customers maximize profits.

Ramsel says his team takes a “field by field and acre by acre approach,” considering dozens of factors including the crop type, soil texture, hybrid or variety, and the emergence patterns of weeds to determine which seed, crop protection and soil fertility programs should be used.

In other cases, CPI agronomists act as agricultural doctors, identifying crop diseases and their treatments. “A lot of things in this industry get misidentified,” says Ramsel. For example, crop diseases caused by bacteria and fungi can be misdiagnosed as injuries caused by high-winds or chemicals. Sometimes, the base disease is misidentified and as a result, mistreated. This can lead to multi-year problems that aren’t planned for—and become compounded—in subsequent seasons.

When diagnoses are particularly difficult, Ramsel gets involved. In one case, a farmer had a patch of field that wouldn’t produce two years in a row, despite trying different crops and inputs. The third year, Ramsel and a first-year agronomist went out and conducted extensive soil samples. 

The problem was low soil pH, which, Ramsel says, can cause elements toxic to plants, such as aluminum, to enter the soil solution.  Once he had a diagnosis, Ramsel said the solution was not all that hard and involved applying lime to raise the soil’s pH.

“What we’re not going to do is just sit there,” he says. “We’re going to dig a little deeper into each problem and find out what’s in the field, rather than sitting around staring at the customer and staring at the problem.  Some problems take more than a visual field diagnosis—they take sampling and lab work.”

Education and dedication, not just talent

Because they spend most of their time driving to sites and providing advice to farmers, Ramsel says his sales agronomists must be self-starters. “This isn’t the kind of business where you come in and wait for your boss to tell you what to do,” he says.

Part of being a self-starter is having a strong work ethic and commitment to learning. Ramsel breaks down potential employees into three categories: smart people who work hard, less talented people who work hard and talented people who don’t work hard. In all cases, he only cares about the work ethic.

That doesn’t mean education isn’t important. Though Ramsel doesn’t require all of his employees to have college degrees, he says in many cases, “a good education is the cheapest experience you’ll find,” and that when employees take the initiative to get educated, it sends good signals to the co-op.

To find and develop the kind of employees he needs, Ramsel uses both an internship program he started in 2015, catered to college juniors and seniors, as well as a six to 18 month-long trainee program.

The internship program, Ramsel says, introduces college students to the co-op and its core staff. When they graduate, these students can enroll in the new employee program with a leg up.

“The better and faster we teach young, incoming employees to manage the complexity of the business, the better we do,” Ramsel says.

Candidates in the trainee program are immersed in sales by shadowing experienced agronomists and learning how to approach farmers directly but respectfully. Ramsel describes this as developing emotional intelligence and says it’s essential, not just to getting busy farmers to sit down and learn about a product, but also to understanding their needs.

Training doesn’t end when employees are new—the co-op will hold peer-to-peer training sessions, where agronomists share new skills with each other. For example, he says a tech-savvy sales agronomist recently taught his colleagues how to use the department’s new digital dispatching system.

Making things happen, not waiting for them

Ramsel says he’s hired a team that exemplifies the balance between knowledge and work ethic, and one goal is to expand the department by finding more of them.  One approach is to recruit from outside of agriculture.

Ramsel says the agriculture industry typically looks for farm-based talent, which can make finding new employees difficult as fewer young people enter the industry.

Ramsel draws from similar positions in other industries—he says pharmaceutical sales reps “often do fantastic” in sales agronomy because they’re accustomed to working with a host of complex products. Similarly, fields like horticulture and botany, though not farming, produce people who are bright, dedicated and love growing. The sales manager at CPI, who left a lawn and tree service in Kansas City, Missouri, to join the co-op, is an example.

“He’s motivated and willing to come forth with contributions instead of waiting for things to happen,” Ramsel says. “If I can keep getting and positioning the best people, I’m confident we can get our business to double or triple in size.”

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