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Digital seed business will grow post-coronavirus
There’s a sliver of good news in the fallout from COVID-19 in that few seed disruptions should result.
Unlike agricultural chemicals that incur a significant amount of foreign production, seed is produced more locally, says Tim Glenn, executive vice president, chief commercial officer of Corteva Agriscience.
“We do have some production in South America,” he says. “A lot of that is for producing parent seed or for producing new hybrids that we are evaluating, so the impact on our commercial lineup is quite limited. We don’t see any disruptions related to South American seed production. Where differences will result due to COVID-19, though, are interactions with customers.”
“COVID-19 is a terrible thing, but at the same time, it has taught us do things differently,” says Jim Hedges, vice president of seeds for Winfield United. “There will still be business done face to face, but I think digital interaction will increase significantly. There is a certain segment of growers who will embrace a virtual experience.”
Some farmers, for example, may be comfortable with ordering products including seed online, similar to models used by retailers like Best Buy, says Hedges.
“You look at people who are ordering groceries online,” says Hedges. “The spike that has been incredible. People you never thought would order products online are doing it. A lot of growers also liked that digital touch and this (COVID-19) probably accelerated it.”
For example, Texas-based Agrellus marketplace offers online access to seed, chemicals, fertilizer, irrigation parts, and other inputs saw a record pace for the first quarter that ended in March, says James Ferraro, Agrellus vice president.
“Product sales through the marketplace doubled from the first quarter of 2019 compared to the first quarter of 2020,” he says.
COVID-19 has particularly perked interest.
“In general, requests (for online purchases) were up 60% in March overall (compared to March 2019),” he says. “But it accelerated when COVID-19 came along. In the period from March 10 until the end of March compared to the same period in 2019, we saw a 225% increase in buying requests from farmers, which is pretty dramatic.”
Increased Digital Interaction
COVID-19 will also spur more digital interaction between farmers and a seed firm’s sales representatives and agronomists. For example, agronomists will still field service calls, but digital tools may substitute for face-to-face interactions. For example, an agronomist may follow up on a field visit request, visit the field, take photos with an iPhone, do an evaluation and digitally contact the farmer, says Glenn.
“We follow CDC guidelines around social distancing and practices like handwashing and using the appropriate personal protective equipment,” says Glenn. “But our team is still on call. I think we will constantly evolve with how we interact with our customers, but I think that close personal relationship is going to continue.”
Seed deliveries also may be altered due to COVID-19, but still retain the same end goal.
“Oftentimes, our customers might not physically be there (at delivery),” says Glenn. “We may be delivering it into their shed and completing the delivery process through electronic means.”
Digital technologies used for educational purposes will also accelerate due to COVID-19.
“Six months ago, it would have been hard to imagine an agronomist scheduling an online meeting in place of a face-to-face meeting,” adds Glenn. “What we’ve found is it actually operates pretty well. Our customers have been very open and receptive to the technologies. This has been an ongoing trend, and I don’t see it slowing down.”
“This was something that was happening before, but not in the way that is occurring now,” adds Paul Rea, BASF senior vice president, agricultural solutions, North America. “We have seen a significant increase in the use of information sharing tools. We have a tool we use with growers called Grow Smart Live, and we've seen a 10-fold increase in the use and adoption of that tool in the last ten weeks.”
Syngenta has also seen an uptick in digital tools, such as its E-Luminate digital seed selection tool.
“We've seen a significant uptick in the number of acres that are being placed, with it,” says Eric Boeck, head of marketing for Syngenta Seeds.