The COVID-19 crisis is forcing changes to how business is done in Ontario agriculture, driving a long-delayed move to digital business transactions.
Deliveries from or visits to a supplier often doubled as social interactions in farm country, but that face-to-face culture is being supplanted by digital bits.
Why it matters: Paper transactions and payments move slowly and less efficiently than electronic information, but agriculture business has been dominated by paper — until now.
When a Pioneer dealer drops seed in a farmer’s yard this spring, farmers are sent a text and they can reply with a code to accept the delivery – in place of the traditional signature.
If you’re getting paid for grain after selling it through the AGRIS Co-operative, you will more than likely receive payment via direct deposit.
And if you are paying for a feed delivery from Grand Valley Fortifiers, then you are being highly encouraged to pay electronically after you receive an electronic invoice.
Agriculture suppliers are pushing for the changes in order to protect employees and maintain efficiency while they continue to operate through the pandemic.
“This is a rapid change for all of us. Rapid, but maybe not surprising,” says Jim Campbell, general manager of the AGRIS Co-operative.
He says that farming business transactions have traditionally been face to face and supplier offices, like AGRIS outlets, provide a coffee shop-like place for farmers to converse.
However, COVID-19 restrictions have meant many AGRIS employees, including Campbell, work at home.
“This is forcing us all to adopt a more paperless or digital relationship than what we’d anticipated. The use of those tools has skyrocketed.”
Campbell says the tools were already available, such as direct deposit and other digital agriculture tools, and some farmers were starting to use them. But COVID-19 has hit the fast-forward button on uptake.
At Pioneer, dealers are using a program called DocuSign wherever possible to have farmers provide an electronic signature, using their finger on a smart phone to sign documents. It is also using a system to send an invoice or document via text and the farmer can reply with a code that approves the document.
The change in efficiency is that the documents are then easily available wherever, whenever, on a farmer’s phone.
Paul Hermans, a territory manager with Pioneer, put together short videos for customers to walk them through the new process.
It’s all about making sure farmers and employees remain safe.
“No one comes into another person’s vehicle,” he says. “They don’t go into a house or barn. They pull up and ask them to stay back.”
The DocuSign document is sent ahead of time. The customer lets the Pioneer representative take off straps. The customer unloads and then the representative secures the straps and heads out.
Corteva’s Kris Allen says the company is using similar procedures with its crop protection and Brevant brands as well.
Allen says another end result of more digitization is less physical use of paper, which is a sustainability improvement. He says the amount of paper people have to sign with orders and deliveries and technology use agreements is significant.
Not everyone is on board, however, and Hermans says they have farmers who want to continue to receive paper copies.
“We always work with our customers to make them feel comfortable and serve them in the manner they prefer,” he says.
“The majority of customers have been quick to adopt digital technology to conduct business, but there are instances where growers prefer to have a hard copy of documents. In these instances we will leave a paper copy in a mailbox or on the delivery trailer rather than passing it directly to the customer.”
The feed industry has also traditionally been a paper-driven sector, but feed companies are also encouraging farmers to use more digital communication and payments.
David Ross, a vice president of the GVF group of companies, says that digital commerce has quickly had an effect across its companies, which include livestock nutrition company Grand Valley Fortifiers, online agriculture supplier Farmer’s Farmacy and Valley Feeds.
At Grand Valley Fortifiers, Ross says they continue to give farmers options in payment, while encouraging them, with an incentive, to move to electronic invoicing and payment.
“We know it never works well to tell farmers what they should do. We usually try to give them options and point them in the right direction,” he says.
They continue to have some staff come into the office to send out paper invoices and process cheques. He says about 60 per cent of invoices were going out as paper before the COVID-19 crisis and much of the payment came in via cheques.
Ian Ross, president of the company, sent out a message in April asking people to sign up for electronic invoicing and payment so that their employees can stay out of the office and be safe.
“This will be best time to do that switch over,” says David Ross.
Truck drivers are wearing masks and gloves while delivering premix and they can now deliver tags and weigh ticket information to farmers via text message.
There are some farmers who still want a paper invoice and they have found ways to leave those for them, says Ross.
Ross says the companies have kept groups within their businesses physically separate, such as warehousing at Farmers Farmacy separate from customer service and from buying teams. They’ve created split teams in case someone on a team is ill, and then the other team can keep the operation running.
Farmers Farmacy had its best March ever, he said, as past customers are ordering more online and new customers make use of the service. The company continues to delivery by courier. People are finding digital solutions when they need them.
Valley Feeds, a retail outlet in Cambridge, has also had to move to using more digital tools for payment and ordering.
“Thankfully we had a Shopify website already built for it. We’ve seen a huge increase in people taking advantage of that,” he says.
Face-to-face will return, but business transactions will be different.
When people are free to move and congregate again, agriculture will go back to its previous method of doing business face to face.
Hermans says discussions, and training are better face to face.
“We really do miss the face-to-face relationship,” says Campbell. “It’s not natural for all of our employees not to have lunch at the same time in the same room. We miss the face-to-face interaction with customers.”
But in behind the face-to-face interactions that will continue to provide an important cultural touch point for the rural community, documents and data and information will be flowing digitally and more efficiently.