Seed World

Keep This Advice Top-of-Mind in 2023

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As we wrap up another year of Seed Speaks, here’s some advice to propel you into 2023 and beyond.

What goes into creating a successful business? Is there really a formula you can use to create the best product, the best employees, the best marketing and the best customer service?

In a perfect world, there’d be an exact formula to follow to make all businesses as equally successful. But, in today’s seed industry, there are ebbs and flows in the marketplace, and no two seed companies look alike.

Though no two companies are the same, through collaboration and advice, companies move forward and progress into new stages of success throughout the year and season. With technical and business experts, Seed Speaks has spent the past year working to curate advice for the industry to help find solutions to problems and increase seed knowledge.

Here’s some of our editors’ favorite pieces of advice.

Invest in Young Leaders for a Brighter Future

We all know that a generational shift is coming. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030, all baby boomers will be age 65 or older — which accounts for 73 million people in the U.S. That means, in less than eight years, a new generation will be stepping up to the plate to fill the gap left by retirees.

As a business, there’s an important question to ask yourself… Are your young leaders ready to lead?

“That generational transition we’ve been talking about is actually happening right now,” says Jim Schweigert, president of Gro Alliance and upcoming chair of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), noting that from 2007-2019, every ASTA chair was born either in the 1950s or 1960s, with two born in the late 1940s. John Latham was born in the 1970s and was chair from 2020-2021 — and Schweigert himself will be the first elected chair born in the 1980s.

“It’s at this moment that companies need to decide where they go in the future and what their path is to long term success for the next generation,” he says. “It’s certainly not going to be by running the same plays they ran before — they need a new playbook and new ideas.”

Not only that, but building up new leaders is imperative for the seed industry to be able to feed the planet, says Jake Ware, business manager for HM.CLAUSE and chair of ASTA’s LEAD committee.

“When you’re able to build leaders with purpose, they can bring success not only to each of the companies, but to the industry as a whole,” he says.

To achieve that, companies need to listen to the needs of their employees, says Brad May.

“Companies really need to understand what their young leaders need and help them improve on their skills,” May, current chair of ASTA and vice president of Global Strategic Marketing Seed Treatments at BASF, says. “We need to teach strategic thinking, how to embrace change and how to become problem solvers.”

By investing in young leaders now, you ensure a smooth transition between generations — but the key is starting that investment as soon as possible.

There are plenty of ways to get knowledge to these aspiring young leaders, including many free or inexpensive solutions such as podcasts and audiobooks, May notes. Sending aspiring leaders to industry meetings always helps better their skills, even if it seems expensive to do so.

And, when it comes down to it — investing in young leaders is something that never depreciates.

“If you invest in your employee base and they get better, they’ll make the people around them better — and that improves your overall company performance,” Schweigert says. “It all starts with investing in your talent so they can get better and improve.”

Don’t Forget About the Power of Social Media

When it comes to social media for your company, it can be a daunting task if you don’t understand how it can fully be utilized. As a company, you don’t want to go viral for the wrong reasons, and that may make you timid in your approach to social media. Social media is an integral part of business these days though and having a social media policy is non-negotiable.

“It’s a fairly new territory as far as policies go,” Crystal Mackay, founder and CEO of Loft32, says. She encourages companies to share their social media policy with employees to make sure it’s fully utilized and doesn’t get forgotten about.

To start making a social media policy you should think of it as a circle — who are you? What do you do? Charles Tweed, owner of Tweedia, says from there you should re-ask yourself those questions, shaping them as, who are your people? Why did you start your business? From there you can start thinking about social media platforms and response strategies.

“We see a number of companies that are, what we call, serial posters. So, they post every day, but there’s no one actually in those accounts in those platforms creating conversation or even answering basic questions that people are asking on their posts. Which, I mean, that’s just a huge faux pas,” he adds.

An important part of social media is working with all employees on it. Tweed says that when Tweedia works with a new company, they’ll sit down with the employees and go through social media training plans. This work focuses on what the brand is, how they’re going to present it on social media and what they want their brand to sound like.

“The truth is, (social media) resonates different coming from a real person in your office with their face at the top of their profile, right? It just hits differently on social media. So yeah, the more you can bring them into the fold the better,” he says.

On top of that, you need to make sure your employees understand the importance of social media, both corporate and personal accounts. Mackay says being a good brand ambassador should be part of the onboarding experience for new employees. You should lay out what is considered offside for posting, such as swearing or excessive party pictures.

“Let’s have a conversation about how you’re repping our brand all the time, and how does that interact with your personal brand? I think it’s really important to give employees the freedom to have some personality in their posts and to share their personal experiences,” she says.

Tweed adds it’s important to help employees understand how the success of the company, which includes social media, is tied to their own personal success. If an employee doesn’t understand why social media and their personal brand is important, then the company’s social media presence isn’t going to work, he adds.

At the end of the day social media isn’t going anywhere, and Tweed says if you haven’t taken a serious look at it as a business then you need to take an examination of why that is.

When It Gets Busy, Stay Productive

Seed production and agriculture at large is an industry that relies on timing. The crop must be planted by a certain time, sprayed before pests overtake fields, harvested before stalks and shanks weaken – all of these time constraints put immense pressure on people in the industry.

When those busy seasons inevitably come, there are steps you can take personally and as a manager to enable your team. Busy seasons take their toll mentally and physically but with proper care there are ways to lighten the load.

Take time to communicate. The adage about assuming holds true — take the time to communicate with employers or employees effectively. This avoids disappointment if certain tasks aren’t addressed, confusion about what is a priority and helps all members of the business to understand how their role impacts the bigger picture.

“We recognize that in agriculture we do face busy times and ask more of people in those busy times,” says Phil Durst, Michigan State University Extension educator. “Maybe in management we sometimes make assumptions about the workload and expectations ahead ‚Äì the question is how did we communicate those and are people prepared for those busy times?”

“It’s important for people to prepare mentally and physically in regard to expectations because, in general, employees are willing to work longer hours and at a faster pace for a period of time ‚Äì but only if they believe in the goal. They want to see they’re helping reach those goals and they don’t want to feel used,” he continues.

Get started preparing. Preparation is the mother of success — because there are ebbs and flows to the industry, it’s important to use the ‚Äòoff’ time to help the business succeed during busy times. Plan ahead and include key employees to ensure all priorities are addressed.

“Many employees are looking for someone to help prioritize the workload and someone who can help simplify it,” says Norm Dreger, principal at Osborne Interim Management. “For me, it was always prioritization, what’s important or not right now or this week or next week. What can wait until later and what is urgent — what requires today’s focus.”

“In the off seasons, budget not only how we’re going to use resources including time. Then establish how you’re going to measure [success] during the busy season so you don’t get overwhelmed by the ‘busyness’ of running around and get off track from the goal,” he adds.

Make sure to establish trust. There are going to be times you or your team feels overwhelmed. Trust needs to be built so if problems arise — personal or professional — they can be addressed.

“When we’re asking a lot of employees, we’re also asking a lot of their families,” Durst says. “That employee might not be able to pick the kids up from school because they’re in the field, they might miss some mealtimes. What can we do to prepare families during these times of stress because families are the reason our employees go to work and they don’t want to sacrifice family for work — they want to have both and it’s important that we do things to help manage expectations and needs of the family during these high-stress times.”

Recognize that stress doesn’t always impact only the employees.

“The working life and the personal life aren’t so easy to separate sometimes,” Dreger says. “It’s important to recognize that it doesn’t matter what job you’re in or what industry, you’re always going to have busy times whether you’re in corporate roles or [crop] production. We can’t just shut off the work side, we have to manage it with family and that takes a lot of planning.”

Help All Teams Learn Your Audience

There’s plenty of ways to make a game-changing product that changes the course of business. For new varieties, in a nutshell, they need to eclipse the currently grown varieties either by yield, disease resistance or some other trait in order to fill a market need.

“If you think about growers, a lot of them have their tried-and-true variety that they like to grow, and you need to have enough advantage over other varieties to draw them away from that old favorite and try out the new one,” says Tom Smith, a retired Canadian plant breeder who co-created the Dynasty dark red kidney bean long with fellow breeder Peter Pauls at the University of Guelph.

“There are lots of steps in between the release of a new variety and its registration and its availability to the farmer,” Pauls says. “In particular, you need to increase the seed from a few kilograms that we might have in our breeding program, into the tons of seed that are required in order to seed farmers’ fields. That commercialization step is done by companies and the companies license the right to increase the seed and then sell it to the farming community.

But, one of the most important aspects? First is the relationships between the breeding program and the seed company — which can create the logistics behind deciding when to make an investment on a product and how large to make that investment.

The other portion? Knowing who your customer is, says Istvan Rajcan, soybean breeder at the University of Guelph.

After receiving advice from Croatian plant breeder Vladimir Puskaric, who said that a breeder should know who his or her customer is — the advice stuck with Rajcan, who has developed 69 soybean varieties including OAC Kent, which won Germination’s Seed of the Year Award in 2008. 

“The applied research aspect of a breeder’s job means that we are developing cultivars that we hope will be grown by the farmers. If they’re not grown my farmers, it’s a wasted effort in a sense. So, we need to constantly communicate with our customers to find out what their needs are,” he says.

In the end, no matter what aspect of business you’re working in — R&D, customer service, sales or marketing — feedback is important to keep top-of-mind.

“They’re good at telling us what traits are important or they think they will be important several years down the road, and then we adjust our goals and selection procedures to achieve those goals,” Rajcan says.