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A new tool to market grain

Here’s a new app and website service that promises more efficient marketing

In the course of a growing season, farmers face even greater challenges to be as efficient as possible. Time is a rare commodity and rapidly consumed by planting, managing, spraying and harvesting crops, tending to animals, making repairs and more.

Any process or device that promises to save time gets a close look. But, of course, there’s an even bigger consideration. Does it fit with the rest of the operation and the farm’s overall goals?

Marketing commodities takes time. That’s inevitable. But if there was a website and phone app that saved time from the back-and-forth of marketing harvested corn, soybeans or cereals, it’d be easy to see why growers would be interested.

That’s where Grain Discovery’s grain marketing app is trying to attract attention — in saving time.

After two years in development and discussions with industry stakeholders, Grain Discovery launched its new app last fall between the rush of winter wheat and soybean harvests. The benefits, according to Rory O’Sullivan, the company’s chief executive officer, include reduced costs, the potential for greater transparency and time savings. For the farmer, the app provides two primary advantages — ease of use in managing contracts and invoices, and faster access to an elevator’s market prices, futures, analytics and news. It’s possible to accept prices, press “sell” and generate contracts, or create a target order to set a price at which they’d like to sell — all from their phone.

“It’s a great way for the elevator to keep their farmers up-to-date, pushing out market alerts or that the market’s closing,” says O’Sullivan. “This isn’t like an open marketplace, where anyone can log on and sell grain. It’s an elevator’s personally branded app that integrates with their current grain accounting software. They invite their farmers and determine who has access to log in and view details.”

The new app provides a variety of options for growers, from live market prices to offers to their own portfolio. photo: Courtesy Rory O'Sullivan

Among its attributes, the app offers an elevator:

  • A personally banded mobile app and website.
  • A marketplace to display their live cash bids.
  • Farmers can create, edit or delete their target offers.
  • Messaging and notification features to connect farmers.
  • Live futures feeds.

The goal was to have a few elevators using the app and get their feedback. Prior to Christmas, O’Sullivan had eight beta elevator testers and roughly 100 farmers using it. The plan at that point was to take their feedback and build the 2.0 version. Late last year, Grain Discovery also signed its first major elevator in Western Canada.

“There’ve been a few companies that have tried to create this open marketplace, like the “Amazon of Ag,” where they want to trade grain with everyone,” says O’Sullivan. “However, that model wouldn’t necessarily work in Ontario where the grains industry is still hyper-local, relationship-driven and competitive.”

A grower’s bids and transactions are kept separate with the power of setting or adjusting bids in the hands of that customer, without the necessity of calling the elevator to check on pricing or asking them to pull the trigger on a price. Yet that isn’t the app’s only function, since growers can use it as a “calling card” to the elevator to confirm a particular price. Others use it as a guideline for making better-informed decisions.

“We want to make it simple,” says O’Sullivan. “We’ll be doing up more digital features that help the farmer and the elevator to really have everything with which they can make a better, more-informed decision. It doesn’t replace that phone call but it does replace those first five minutes of a conversation where a farmer is checking how much grain’s been delivered, the balance of their contracts and their up-to-date bid.”

Finding the benefit

The back-and-forth of phone calls surrounding a bid can be taxing to those at the elevator, and Tiffany Spearing welcomes the relationship-building that comes with her time on the phone. Yet she’s noticed the time savings and maintains the benefits apply to her as much as they do to her clients. As general manager and grain trader with Lockie Farms Grain Elevator near Zephyr, Ont., northeast of Newmarket, she’s welcomed the opportunity as a beta tester for the app and has seen varied and positive reactions among growers. Some are using it to hasten their sales, watching for the best price, while others use it as a reason for calling her and asking her advice on a sale.

The screen in the office — shown by Lockie Farms’ operations manager John Spearing — and the screen a farmer sees at home are the same, which is an assurance to customers. photo: Courtesy Tiffany Spearing, Lockie Farms Elevators

Spearing first heard of Grain Discovery’s developing app in April 2020 and was contacted by the company’s director of business development, to discuss using it, which started towards the end of June. They were working with it by the time wheat harvest began.

“We really like that it’s an online platform and a place where we can post our bids that only our customers can see,” she says, adding they never posted a bid sheet directly on their website in the past. “It’s something our users can log in and use on their phone or on their computer.”

Spearing adds that the uptake of the Grain Discovery technology is like anything else in precision ag: it varies with each individual. Some growers have latched on to the system with little trouble while others have needed some assistance. The common thread among most of her clients is the time savings, where some can eliminate half of their phone calls checking for prices.

“Farmers don’t have a lot of time for fluff or to go through one screen to get to another… they just need it to work,” she says. “Rory and the team have been open to suggestions and they’ve gone out of their way. If I have a customer who’s having difficulty with something specific, they’ll say, ‘Give me their name and number and we’ll get it figured out for them.’ They’ve been excellent with customer service.”

Fine-tuned communications

As part of the grain elevator’s service, it allows Spearing to touch base with her customers — because there’s a built-in communications option. It sets up a notification on their phone, whether it’s to say the markets are going up or if there’s a USDA report available. She can send a message with a sound prompt — like a text — for a simple cue that keeps everyone in touch.

“It also helps me because there’s a place in there where the farmer can enter ‘Strike,’ so when they want to sell 20 tonnes of grain when it gets to $250, they’re able to put that in,” says Spearing. “The customers are used to calling and saying, ‘I want to strike for this’ or ‘Call me when it gets to this point.’ It allows them to manage that a bit more and allows us to see it at the same time — and they can adjust it and I can hit it when I need to.”

She thinks of one customer who admitted to being an avid watcher of market activity. He told Spearing he didn’t realize how much prices move in a day and that he’d sold 95 per cent of his grain from the 2020 harvest on the app, analyzing movement to garner his best price. What’s more impressive is the farmer has a full-time off-farm job.

The streamlined communications is another benefit of the app and website portal. Farmers in the middle of harvest don’t have time for conversations and the ability to check prices on their own time is a huge advantage. It allows Spearing to tailor services to her clients in a way that suits their needs. Some are moving to the app for selling their commodities, some still want that phone call and others are using the web portal. In the office, there’s also a big-screen TV that displays the client portal for the website version. That’s posted without Spearing adjusting the bids on an ongoing basis.

The technology is also a huge savings for the office trader and administration, where for three months of the year, 75 per cent of the day is taken up with converting prices, booking trades, writing contracts and communication. With Grain Discovery, half of the time spent engaged in those activities is reduced, and the value increases with the realization of the time savings.

“Instead of spending the majority of their day consumed with the tasks of back-office paper shuffling, contract entry and repetitive conversations, their time could be better spent chasing new sales,” says O’Sullivan. “Put a dollar value on your time, which elevators are doing more and more, but farmers should also do it.”

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CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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