Need Help? Join The Club

You can grow a good canola crop. But can you also market it in a way that leaves you satisfied? This past year has perhaps been one of the most challenging ones to price grain. For many farmers in the Westlock, Barrhead and Clyde counties of Alberta, the Tri-County Marketing Group has been instrumental in growing their marketing skills.

“Your operation is only as strong as your weakest link, and marketing is one of my strongest now,” says Andre Huot. He is a long-term member of the club and past president. He crops 1,000 acres in Vimy, north of Edmonton. The marketing club was crucial to him when he first started farming, he says.

At the marketing group’s annual fall meeting, about 20 farmers listened attentively as James Holm of BLB Grain Group (www.blbgraingroup.com)in Three Hills explained the canola chart on the wall. Holm’s words weren’t exactly what these farmers wanted to hear. Higher production, higher ending stocks, and higher stocks to use ratios at the end of 2008 weren’t good news for an already downturned canola market. A lively discussion ensued with many questions and a valuable exchange of information.

That exchange of ideas and information at meetings is part of what Huot appreciates so much about the club. “Meeting neighbours you don’t normally see and sharing information makes a big difference,” he says. “It’s just as helpful as listening to the speakers.”

Johann von Rennenkampff, also a long term member, agrees with him. Talking with other farmers at the meetings is high on his list of club membership benefits.

Earl Siegle has just recently joined the marketing club. Siegle is a certified financial planner with a demanding business. He farms 10 quarters on the side with his father. His membership allows him to keep a finger on the pulse of the farming industry and rub shoulders with other growers.

GETTING STARTED

Many members have been with the club since 1993, when it began as a breakfast meeting in the side room of the local hotel. It actually evolved out of a crop production club formed in the late ‘80s. Bill Chapman, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture, was asked to help with organizing and running the marketing club and is still with them today. He has been instrumental in helping them get organized, find speakers for meetings and workshops, and help with applying for government grants.

“It’s a group of like-minded guys, all positive, all wanting to grow profitable crops,” Chapman says. His payback is to watch these men and women develop into leading edge marketers, learning how to limit risk exposure and to watch the basis to get those few extra dollars.

Vivian and Steve Visscher farm 2,500 acres, making the transition to grain farming after 27 years in the dairy industry. “I do a lot of the marketing,” Vivian says, “but we go to the meetings together. He’ll (Steve) pick up things that I don’t. We’ll discuss it on the way home.”

Membership in the marketing club is important to her. “Steve could be hauling grain, and I will get a call to say they’ve got a premium on. You don’t have much time to make a decision and I’ll make that decision,” she says. “If you review daily marketing information and if it’s close to your targeting and planning, you might do a load or more.

“Sometimes you have to be able to react when that phone call comes in.” What she learns at club meetings and from the daily market information gives her the confidence to take that action.

One of the club members is a commercial airline pilot and farmer. Keith Taylor joined the club about two years ago. “It gives me contacts… Somebody always seems to have a little more insight than the next.”

KEEPING IT GOING

What has made this club successful for so many years while other clubs have come and gone? President Colin Felstad, one of the four partners of Felstad Farms, cropping 5,400 acres north of Westlock, says “the kind of information we are offering is not necessarily repeated anywhere else.”

The main component of that information is a daily market report with updated futures prices from ProMarket, put out by Errol Anderson of Calgary. The second component is the pricing sheet compiled by secretary Susanne von Rennenkampff. Twice a week in summer and three times a week in winter, Susanne sends each member up-to-date prices for most of the major markets club members are likely to access. Included may be special information, such as a price premium offered by one grain buyers for a certain commodity.

“With Susanne, you get the local cash market updates,” Felstad says. “No one else offers all that on one sheet.”

“The deal that Susanne sends out is awesome, especially when I am away or in spray season, to keep up with what’s going on,” says Taylor, who is also a commercial aerial applicator. “It gives me an opportunity to see where the trend is going.”

The price sheet is a big time saver for members. “The price chart summarizes the market instead of each of us phoning 10 different places,” Visscher says. Often members are able to take advantage of good prices before others have even heard of them.

Both reports are sent out by email or fax. Many farmers still prefer the fax because they can take it along to read anywhere (including on their auto-steered tractors). Most members say this is the most important aspect of club membership to them. “That price sheet is still a major factor in what I do,” Huot says.

How does the future look for this club? “Strong,” Chapman says, “because there is a core group of like minded farmers.” Government grant money has become hard to get, but Chapman is not too concerned. “Members are willing to pay the price for the club’s information. It is a great deal when you consider how much time it saves. They know the benefit of working together as a group.”

Chapman thinks there could be some money available in the future, to leverage member money. They will take advantage of that as opportunities arise. Club membership right now is $200 per farm unit, but that will rise to $300 for the coming subscription year. Membership includes the daily market faxes and marketing meetings with invited speakers.

“It’s a struggle to find new blood, keep things going, keep people interested,” Felstad says, who is looking for someone to replace him as president. But for now the recipe seems to work. Some members have left, but others are taking their place. “It’s been good for me. I find it’s a good network. Everyone that’s involved is pretty positive about agriculture.” Maybe that’s the most important success ingredient of all.

Marianne Stamm lives on a farm near Westlock, Alta.

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