August 17, 2020

As we continue the long, hard slog through this pandemic—what’s the new normal, and what’s just temporary?

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner

I look forward to the day I can begin an article with the phrase, “With the pandemic behind us …”

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

This COVID-19 crisis has brought realities that are unprecedented, uncharted, and uncertain (and who else is sick and tired of hearing those words?). Businesses are facing circumstances they likely never dreamed of facing. The impacts were broad-reaching and they came on quickly, leaving most companies with little time to react.

However, as we said in a previous article, agriculture stops for nothing. Not even a pandemic can shut our industry down, though it certainly can create interruptions and chaos. It was more like tuning up an engine while it’s moving through the field. Things certainly shifted, some rather abruptly. The question now is, what changes will be temporary and what will stick?

Now that we’re several months in, how is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting agribusinesses, and how have they kept farms going during this time of chaos and confusion? In this complex situation we’re all facing, it’s a good time to shift gears and let the fundamentals get us through—starting with compassion, communication, and customer focus.

Compassion

As many businesses experienced, having the world upended right on the verge of planting season made for a wild spring. Right out of the gate, CHS Big Sky in Montana, scrambled to get operations situated so they could keep serving customers safely and effectively. They had a plan defined and communicated to staff and customers within 72 hours, and since employees had concerns for their families and their own health, that gave employees peace of mind that CHS cared about their safety.

“Our biggest concern was having a staff that was healthy, comfortable with our protocols, and ready to go once the season hit,” said Keith Schumacher, general manager of Big Sky. “We never furloughed any employees; we just asked everyone working at home to be on call. And I know our employees appreciated that.”

CHS had curbside service even before the stay at home orders. “We were ahead of the game here in Montana. That’s CHS being very proactive and providing great leadership from the top.”

The proactive measures CHS took were occurring in ag business offices all over the country—sending people home to work remotely or rotating staff in the office, limiting people from congregating in buildings, arranging no-contact deliveries, extra sanitization at warehouses, and putting shop work on hold.

By the time the season really got into full swing, CHS had diligent protocols for sanitization and social distancing and communicated with customers right away to make sure everyone understood and were comfortable with the plan moving forward.

The industry as a whole definitely seemed to prioritize people’s wellbeing. Lauren Liggett, strategic account manager with MKC in central Kansas, said keeping employees and customers safe has driven the response at her company from day one.

“Safety is our #1 key to success at MKC—first and foremost we want everyone to go home safely to their families each night,” she said. Safety is one of the four “keys to success” at MKC, and it’s something the cooperative emphasizes even during non-COVID times. Employees spend as much or more time talking about safety as they do the other keys of courtesy, image and innovation.

Communication

Communication is paramount in any crisis, and that’s certainly been the case during COVID-19. Keeping staff, customers and other business partners informed is essential, especially when the situation is changing so frequently.

CHS implemented weekly business continuity meetings via Skype that included everyone from management to drivers to store staff. “This was important not only to review safety procedures, but also to listen to what everyone was hearing and dealing with out in the field,” Schumacher said.

Ag businesses are relying on various platforms and technologies to be accessible to growers…though taking care of business by phone remains the gold standard.

“Phones have proven to be the most valuable tool to keep things moving,” Liggett said. “Growers are busy, and this situation has reinforced that phone calls and texts really are their preferred method of communicating.”

Customer Focus

Customers are dealing with pandemic uncertainties on top of the normal pressures of the season, so ag businesses should be working on their behalf while they focus on keeping their operation running.

In Kansas, Liggett said, “We had our chemical and seed orders in by the time everything started shutting down, so we moved quickly to get it out to growers. That early delivery made planting season go very smoothly, and that’s something I can see us striving for in the future—getting that out to growers really early means they can plant as soon as they’re ready and not have to wait for us to fulfill the order.”

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing in all cases. Trade issues with China were already a variable, then the abrupt loss of critical food service markets dealt a completely unexpected blow.

“The low demand for products intended for restaurants—like milling wheat, malting barley, oilseed, and the beef market—that strained farmers to a new level,” Schumacher said. “They suddenly have no market for contracted products and can’t execute the sale because there’s no place for it to go.”

Then there are the distancing measures that force companies to find creative ways to connect with customers. Businesses face the conundrum of how to continue serving customers when in-person visits are not possible. In an industry that’s built on relationships, this is a tough pill to swallow—especially in traditionally customer-facing roles.

Doug Walsh is a business representative for BASF covering NE Kansas, and in normal times spends most days face-to-face with customers.

“I would say we had a fairly normal spring in terms of planting and spraying. We were still making customer calls, though sometimes that was two pickups side-by-side. For several weeks in a row I blasted out a video message to my customers—that was one way I could get in front of them without actually being in front of them,” he said,

“All the normal stressors are already there, and then COVID-19 happens. I know I definitely felt a real ‘can-do’ spirit out in the field, even with all the factors out of our control. We got the job done.”

Walsh said field trials continue, though a lot of plot tours and field days are being handled virtually.

“Retailers will find a way to adapt, and they’re already doing a great job with that.”

What will stick?

One question we’re all wrestling with is, “when will things go back to normal?” But there seems to be consensus that some things likely will never go back to the way they were.

Emphasizing efficiency will be the name of the game for the foreseeable future.

Schumacher said, “Because wheat markets softened and farmers aren’t spending, we’ve really got to tighten things up. We can see impacts to us over the next 2-3 years, so we’ve got to heighten our focus on efficiency and cost management.”

One way companies can save is through reduced business travel, which clearly has not returned to full throttle. Schumacher said, “Summer meetings within CHS were moved to virtual platforms and it does present businesses with an opportunity to save significantly on travel expenses.”

If there’s a silver lining, maybe it could be that. I, for one, have been doing a lot more driving than flying these days when traveling on behalf of Entira. 

Now that restrictions in most areas have loosened a bit, many businesses have embraced the benefits of working remotely—even if it’s a hybrid of part of the time at home and part in the office.

Schumacher said, “What I miss most are small group brainstorms and those side conversations that are so great for strategizing and relationship building. That’s something you just can’t get virtually.”

Technology can keep us connected…to a point. We can FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc., but I know everyone in the industry is ready to get back to more real-life, face-to-face interactions.

“There is a lot of corn and soybean seed that gets sold to farmers from the inside of a combine cab—will that ever come back?” Walsh asked. “I guess time will tell.”

Compassion for others will continue to be important as everyone adapts to the inconveniences and many experience the fear and mental toll of the pandemic. “We’re trying to keep in mind comfort levels and worries, and then you’ve got the challenges everyone faces with daycare and school starting soon.”

A renewed focus on business continuity is also something that likely will stay alive. “Nobody anticipated anything like this, but at least we had a structure to start with that made it easier to react quickly and effectively. It’s a very good plan that we’ll continue to build upon for the future,” Schumacher said.

Regardless of where we’re located in the world right now, by now it’s safe to say COVID-19 has hit closer to home than any of us would like—if it hasn’t already impacted us directly. Let’s work together to keep people healthy and our great industry moving forward.

The effects of the pandemic are real and will be with us for the foreseeable future. I would welcome the chance to visit with you about your experiences. If you’d like to discuss your situation and strategies for pushing through the pandemic, please give me a call at 901.753.0470 or email mkarst@entira.net.