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Focus on strengths in uncertain times

The past 90 days have provided an object lesson about the weight uncertainty can bear on society. For leaders at the highest levels of the federal government and its agencies to state and local decision-makers, there are lessons to be learned from how we have dealt with and con­tinue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Agriculture is inextri­cably wrapped into the collective decisions made by the public. Right now, that’s especially true. I join you in hoping policymakers find productive solutions to the prob­lems caused by the pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil.

As I reviewed comments I have made previously in this space and measured them against the news of the day, I noticed a theme: Those of us in the farming business have a unique perspective on uncertainty. I’ve said it about the weather. I’ve said it about markets, and I’ve said it about trade. In light of current events, I think it is worth repeating yet again. For us, there is no “new normal.” And there is no “restart.” Uncertainty is the rule.

When I look at how to han­dle the changes brought on by COVID-19, it’s reassuring that MFA’s strategy reinforces what we have already defined as ways to serve our customers in a volatile agricultural environment.

We continue to make employ­ees a top priority. At the height of the shutdown, that meant taking precautions to prevent spreading the virus and adjusting how we handle employee absences. During this disruption, MFA essential employees pushed hard to cover acres with fertilizer, apply crop pro­tection products, deliver feed, scout crops, and consult with customers. We had to improvise to implement safety measures, but we executed.

In the bigger picture, though, MFA understands the ongoing need to maintain an employee base trained with the expertise today’s agriculture demands. We remain committed to that task. As I write this, I’ve just visited with our latest class of Ag Experience students. This internship program puts students in real-life work situa­tions for MFA. We’ve found it to be beneficial to both students and the company. We have a number of Ag Experience alumni in our work­force. The on-the-job experience they gain through the internship is a valuable head start in building the skills we demand from MFA employees. While we have adjusted the Ag Experience curriculum this year to accommodate social-dis­tancing measures, we are commit­ted to the program as a workforce building block.

Another strategy to navigate marketplace disruption is to remain agile and efficient. The realities of agriculture economics dictate this one. Capital expenditures must be laser-focused to deliver operational efficiencies and the best return possible on member equity. MFA’s trade area represents a great diversity of farming operations. Our decisions must reflect local reality but adhere to a broader strategy for growth and customer benefit.

In some cases, innovation can deliver efficiency without significant capital expenditure. This spring, MFA unveiled a mixing system to impregnate pasture fertilizer with weed control products. Last year, trials on the process produced good results. It provides contact and some residual weed control in forages from the fertilizer cart. We expand­ed the mixing capability to 37 MFA Agri Services locations for this sea­son and, in terms of typical capital expenditure projects, at little cost.

The fertilizer mixing project, developed in-house by MFA retail employees, is an example of an­other necessary strategy for today’s agricultural retailer. We must adapt to the changing needs of our cus­tomers. You have restraints on time, labor and capital. MFA consistently reviews our services, products and facilities to meet your evolving needs. Like every business, the COVID-19 pandemic has high­lighted challenges in serving our customers, but if you look critically, it also revealed opportunities.

About two years ago, MFA management worked to better define the company’s culture and values. We engaged in the process not because of a pivotal moment, but because clearly communi­cating any company’s vision is required maintenance and critical to forward planning. Much of that work focused on a high-performing workforce and accommodating customer needs. When I look at the uncertainty leveled by COVID-19, I certainly see challenges on the horizon. And I’m reminded that, while it’s not the uncertainty we’ve been planning for, MFA is commit­ted to the people and processes that will see us through.

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