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New business concept offers help for area farmers

By Staff | Feb 21, 2020

Farmer's Business Network Regional Vice President Jesse Cook introduces a speaker at an informational session held for area farmers at Ideal Seed Solutions in Rugby last Wednesday. Sue Sitter/PCT

As spring draws near, Pierce County farmers take advantage of warmer weather to prepare for planting and a busy growing season.

Sometimes the weather means problems for farmers rather than advantages, as a blizzard last October proved.

Some crops meant for harvest last fall sat in the fields this month.

In the past, there was very little farmers could do about such problems. Although 21st century farmers still face surprises from Mother Nature, they have more resources to help them than ever before.

One resource is a new business concept familiar to online shoppers and sellers that farmers like Rugby’s Jason Brossart are saying “has really taken off.”

Brossart, who lives in Rugby, describes himself as a “founding member” of Farmer’s Business Network, a venture started by Silicon Valley tech experts and farmers.

Brossart said he joined the network when it began in 2014.

“I wanted to compare myself to how other farmers were doing, just to check prices and that kind of stuff,” Brossart said.

Brossart, who also has a background in agribusiness, owns Ideal Seed.

“I wanted to check seeds to see how different varieties compared and see if one company was selling it for one price, and one company was selling for another price so I could compare apples to apples,” Brossart noted.

“That’s why I joined,” Brossart added. “FBN kind of turned into something more. When I joined, they weren’t doing chemicals and all that other stuff; it was just a farmers’ data sharing thing.”

Representatives from FBN gathered at Brossart’s Ideal Seed Solutions warehouse in Rugby last Wednesday to present the large variety of services available to meet local farmers’ needs. Services the network provides range from marketing advice and competitively-priced farm chemicals to group health insurance.

The event included a presentation on markets by Walter Kunisch, an agricultural economist who lends his expertise to FBN, providing information to farmers in the network.

Charles Baron, formerly of Google, co-founded FBN with Amol Deshpande, a software engineer with experience at such companies as Equifax.

Baron met with area farmers after a supper served in Brossart’s warehouse.

Regional Vice President Jesse Cook described the FBN business hub concept to the Tribune at the event. Cook said Baron’s flight to Grand Forks had been delayed and Baron would join the FBN presenters in Rugby later that evening.

“FBN started as a network of farmers, which is what we still are, back in ’14 or ’15,” Cook said.

“Our network of farmers has grown all over the United States, well over 10,000 members now. Part of our business is obviously transparency in the marketplace, and then also access to products,” Cook added.

“That’s one of the big things with our hub concept – access to products, chemicals and price transparency, kind of a one price for the whole nation,” Cook said.

Cook said Brossart’s business was a part of the hub concept, with his piece providing warehousing and distribution services. “We’ve had an online concept for chemicals, where (farmers) can purchase online and have it shipped directly to their location,” he noted.

Cook acknowledged some years can be more challenging than others for farmers.

“In some situations, in season years like this where there’s late harvest,” Cook said, “harvest isn’t done yet and we don’t know when we’re going to get planted, guys aren’t going to know what they’re going to need to spray. So, this hub concept has really come into play.”

Cook said, “We’ve been working on it for a couple of years, where we’re going to partner (with farms and farm businesses), but instead of building brick and mortar stores and having a bunch of infrastructure costs where it really increases overhead, thus increasing the price that the farmer has to pay for products, we thought, ‘hey, there’s a lot of farmers out there that we already work with, that are already partners with FBN that we could work with to help us with this problem.'”

Cook said using data to allow farmers to get pricing information for both marketing their crops and buying chemicals was at the center of FBN in the beginning.

The hub uses what Cook calls “anonymized data” to inform farmers in Pierce County and beyond what farm products cost in their particular areas. This data comes from information provided by members, but details that identify members are eliminated.

“For example,” Cook said, “you can look at seed performance on the seeds you’re planting versus seeds the other farmers are planting. You can look at all the anonymized data – privacy’s very important. We tell you for your area what are the top performing seeds, what are the top performing chemicals. And we also show pricing. Farmers share their pricing data. It’s an online price transparency which isn’t really around in the ag market.”

Cook noted, “There are other markets where you can go, for example, Car Fax – you can see what price you should be paying for a used car, but there’s really not that for ag inputs.”

Ag inputs include seeds, chemicals and products that go into the ground for crop production, Cook explained.

So, what FBN is doing is – farmers show us what they pay, and we can see a farmer in an area say, ‘I’m paying $20 a gallon for this chemical,’ and the average farmer’s paying $19. Or, you might see the average farmer’s paying $25, and you’re getting a good deal. So, we have that price transparency in the market. With that, we have optionality. Farmers ask us, ‘I see all that I should be doing, but I may not have the access to these products,’ or, ‘the prices I’m paying don’t match up with what you’re saying, so I need another option.'”

Cook said although the region he oversees spans nine states in the northern US, he’s very familiar with North Dakota agriculture. “I grew up near Kenmare,” he said.

Brossart said choosing to provide warehousing services for FBN helped his business transition from direct sales.

“I was getting out of the chemical business, and I still had customers who wanted that part of it, and I still liked recommending chemicals,” Brossart said. “I don’t have to worry about collecting bills and doing all that, because I’m just a warehouse.”

“I can still help people, but I don’t have to worry about in and out, buying and selling and all that, it’s all their stuff. I’m just warehousing the stuff for the guys,” Brossart added.

“You can save a lot of money,” Brossart said of buying with FBN. “It’s just nice to compare stuff.”

“The way I look at FBN is it’s what the farmer wants to make it,” Brossart added. “They can use as much or as little as they want as far as the information and services. It’s what they want to do.”

“They have health insurance, they have everything,” Brossart said. “And with me getting out of the chemical business, they’re willing to work with people as long as people are like minded.”

“And that’s the thing,” Brossart added. “So many people in the ag sector want to get set up, and it can be difficult. It shouldn’t be that way. Times are tough for farmers and they have to look at how to save money, and this is a way to do it.”

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