Founded in 2001, United Agronomy LLC is an agronomy services provider serving cooperatives throughout northern North Dakota. The company specializes in fertilizer and pesticide wholesale, as well as the manufacture of agronomy-related chemicals.
United Agronomy formed after several cooperatives in the region decided to join forces, a move designed to increase their collective buying power while reducing overhead.
“It wasn’t cutthroat, but these cooperatives were employing people to call on the same customers and really just duplicating services. At the end of the day, they decided they could probably better use the patrons’ money and provide better service in a more efficient fashion if they joined forces,” says RJ Theis, general manager of United Agronomy.
The move has not only allowed the cooperatives to combine monetary resources, but human capital as well. In an industry facing a chronic shortage of qualified labor, Theis says that this was a major consideration during the process. “Quality labor is so hard to find in rural America, so we would have been missing out on our No. 1 resource, which is manpower,” he says.
Theis joined United Agronomy in February 2001, shortly after the merger in January of that year. An experienced agronomy professional with years of experience in the industry, Theis says that the merger was an important means of ensuring ongoing success in an industry facing continued consolidation.
“We got bigger so we were more efficient in purchasing, but who isn’t big anymore? All the independents are larger at this point,” he notes.
A leader in research
As United Agronomy works to become a regional leader in agronomy, the company has started performing more of its own research under a separate entity, Vision Research Park LLC. This dedicated contract research/consulting company allows United Agronomy to maximize value to customers by performing thorough vetting on new products entering the market and address a longstanding problem in the industry.
“As agronomy matures, there are very few new products coming to the market, so what we’ve seen is a huge influx of private-label and proprietary products that I would go as far as saying are often snake oil,” says Theis. “We’ve found that very few people were trying to sell us the active ingredients that we needed and there was a shift to selling us what was profitable for them.”
With over 32 acres of research farmland, Vision Research Park is able to perform extensive testing on new products, including soil testing and analysis, seed germination and testing, grain quality determination, yield monitor calibration, variable rate mapping and more.
“We’re doing studies both in fields and in plots to see if we can get a product to work and how to best use it. Our representatives tell us that from a business standpoint, we have a low incidence of complaints because when one of our recommendations hits the field, it typically works,” he says.
Run as a separate division of United Agronomy, Vision Research Park has its own staff and director, a structure designed to minimize bias in its research. “None of our salespeople get told they need to sell this or that; they sit through the same meetings I sit through and what works is what we recommend,” says Theis.
With a dedicated research arm performing continual testing on new products hitting the market, United Agronomy is able to reduce the amount of sales-driven misinformation passed on to farmers, which Theis says has become a major issue in the industry as of late.
“You go to any agriculture trade show and if you bought every one of the products that people have for sale there and it worked the way it said, you should be raising 2,000 bushel of corn, but clearly that’s not true, so the question is what works and what doesn’t in our specific trade footprint,” he says.
Experts over salesmen
The sales team is an important part of any business, but at United Agronomy, it has never truly been the focus.
“We don’t typically hire salespeople; we hire agronomists,” says Theis. “If you want a guy to wine and dine you, we’re probably not that guy, but if you want the truth in no uncertain terms, that’s us. That’s been our business model and while it’s different from most, we find that approaching things from the technical side allows us to not get as caught up in gimmicks.”
This same avoidance of flashy gimmicks and trends extends to United Agronomy’s outlook on technology. While there are exciting new products hitting the market all the time, Theis says it’s too easy to waste time keeping a finger on the pulse of each new advancement that comes down the road.
“We spend so much time trying to understand new technology that by the time a lot of us gain that understanding, it’s passed already and we’re on to something new,” he says. “We’re more about feet on the ground than fingers on the keyboard.”
As he looks toward the future of United Agronomy, Theis says the company will have to find ways to succeed in an ever-shrinking market. “Consolidation is inevitable. We’ll have to get bigger and bigger to keep up, but that will all be prudent, cautious growth, because we do not want to sacrifice on service,” he explains.
With a finger on the pulse of emerging trends and the research capabilities necessary to properly vet new products entering the market, United Agronomy LLC will remain a leading name among producers across North Dakota.