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Redfern Farm Services

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Award-winning performance in Agribusiness

On February 10, 2010, the Canadian Association of Agri-Retailers (CAAR) held its third-annual Choice Awards Banquet in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was there that Ray Redfern, President of Redfern Farm Services was inducted into the CAAR Agri-Retailer Hall of Fame for long-term performance and leadership, reflecting a lifetime of dedication and achievement. According to CAAR’s press release, Redfern is seen by his peers and customers as "a pioneer, mentor and confidant with almost universal agreement that it is his big heart, endless energy and irrepressible optimism that sets him apart."

Aft er an hour of speaking with Ray Redfern, I knew exactly why he got the award. He had the confidence of someone who knows what he’s doing, the humility to be transparent, and the kindness to explain his industry to an otherwise uninformed business writer.

We began the interview with an introduction of Redfern’s company and how it got started. As you might have surmised, Redfern Farm Services is an agri-retailer and an active participant in the agriculture industry, which includes food production, seed supply, fertilizers and crop protection products, farm machinery, wholesale and distribution, processing, marketing and retail sales—a $10-billion sector in the Canadian economy.

"Headquartered in Brandon, Manitoba, Redfern Farm Services began in 1973," Redfern recalls. "As an entrepreneur at heart, I wanted to start my own business. Before I ventured out, I was involved in marketing for Imperial Oil, with a background in agronomy. I participated in an analysis of the business opportunities for Imperial Oil franchise operators to add the marketing of fertilizer and herbicide crop inputs to farming communities. After seeing it was feasible, I seized the opportunity. I resigned from my position and arrived in Rivers, Manitoba, to become an associate of Imperial Oil. It was an effort to introduce products and services to help change agriculture in western Canada—from a relatively subsistence style industry to something more intensive and commercial."

Clearly, the concept worked. Today, Redfern Farm Services has eleven locations across southwestern Manitoba, offering agricultural crop production services and agronomy, as well as supplying the most complete line-up of crop input products available. With years of experience under its belt, the company has become a go-to for application, training and product expertise.

Pioneers

Seeking improvements to crop production practices have been the grower’s obsession for millennia. To that end, Redfern can say his company helped revolutionize the farming landscape in its region.

While local farmers already used some fertilization programs in the early 1970s, they were usually in conjunction with ‘summer fallowing’ practices (leaving the land idled for a year between crops) and it was the introduction of modern fertilizer products and programs that allowed the monumental change to continuous cropping that would present a more efficient alternative.

"We were one of the pioneers in introducing new forms of fertilizers and bulk products to the marketplace in their present form," Redfern says. "Until this time, they slung bags of fertilizer over their shoulders and handled it numerous times before applying it using rudimentary equipment. Mind you, the farms were also a lot smaller than they are now—a few hundred acres then, instead of a few thousand now. Still, growers were not using bulk products or the nitrogen-rich anhydrous ammonia fertilizer which were all just then becoming available."

"We went to Oregon, bought fertilizer equipment, learned how to use it and then brought it to the marketplace. Redfern Farm Services was a leader in bringing NH3 and bulk granular fertilizer into our communities in south-western Manitoba. When other retailers saw the potential, everyone wanted in. We woke up one day to find that there wasn’t only a few of us anymore, which was good because it made this industry vibrant and competitive."

Redfern Farm Services also played a large role in introducing liquid fertilizers as another option to its local growers, which meant investing in storage tanks and the necessary equipment. The same thing happened as with the NH3 and bulk granular product. "At first, we had to provide the equipment for most of the farmers to use, as they were reluctant to buy their own," Redfern explains. "Some people would rent it first to see if the product worked. Now there’s a mix of some who have their own application equipment and some who rent it from us."

Over time, agriculture—and by extension, agriretail— has become a lot more sophisticated, technical and large scale. Farms can be thousands of acres and they produce exponentially more crops. "That has been the growth in the industry," says Redfern. "But earning a living is just as tough as it was back then. The size of viable operations has increased, and producers manage much larger cash flow, but farms also cost a lot more to run these days." When you consider the cost of specialised inputs, requirements for operational and financial training, new equipment and labour, you can only hope growers are able to get an acceptable return on their investment.

Crop protection

The importance of ROI brings Redfern to the next component of his business: making sure the crops have a chance to grow. "That aspect of our offerings evolved naturally, after helping to develop the fertilizer industry," he explains. "We provide a whole product line of pesticide controls, called crop protection products. Each is meant to do a specific job; they control certain plant and disease growth while leaving the crop intact."

In addition to the products themselves, Redfern Farm Services provides assistance to help crop producers understand how to use the right crop protection products (herbicide, fungicide, seed protection, insecticide), in the right way, at the right time and at the right rate, to ensure they are getting the proper results. "You can imagine what would happen if you misused a product and your results were not successful," Redfern says. "Application knowledge is just as important as the chemical. That’s why we invest large amounts of resources, in terms of time and personnel, to make sure people get what they pay for."

For those customers who don’t have the time or expertise, Redfern Farm Services provides infield scouting and recommendations. "We are a value-added business," he continues, "the company provides a variety of customized services to help those who need it, whether it’s product knowledge, training or rental of specialized equipment, and it certainly has the largest investment in our marketplace of equipment and personnel to provide custom application and delivery services."

One extremely beneficial value-adding solution is variable-rate input technology, which is a method of applying varying rates of crop inputs to different zones throughout the field. The goal is to optimize crop yields, while creating efficiencies in input application. "Variable-rate input measures crop potential," says Redfern. "It is determined by a number of factors, such as soil quality and terrain. We can determine the proper use of fertilizer on a zone-by zone basis, noting how much nutrient needs to be applied to each zone in order to match yield potential with nutrient use."

"Technology has become a huge part of the industry and we are finding new ways to leverage it for better yields," Redfern adds. "Another example of GIS technology is its use with product application shut-off controls to identify where we are in a field and ensure we’re not applying the product to the same area twice. It prevents over-application, so it is environmentally responsible, and it lowers the producers’ costs."

"We not only have equipment that provides variable-rate inputs, but we also have the agronomy background to map those fields. We’re not the first to offer this service, but we think we can provide it better than many because our offering is done more thoroughly; it’s not a broad-brush approach. In fact, it takes much time and capital to do it properly, but it’s worth it. Redfern Farm Services is helping to move variable-rating of inputs into the mainstream for crop producers in south-western Manitoba."

The future of agri-business

To complement the business—as well as thrust it into the future—Redfern Farm Services has developed two secondary organizations called Redsper Enterprises and Accu-Test. Redfern states both are becoming increasingly important to the agribusiness.

While not every farmer is enthusiastic about the move towards proprietary genetics, plant genetics have been enhanced significantly to enhance crop traits. Through these subsidiaries, Redfern Farm Services provides a seed processing service for growers to separate out foreign material—weeds and unviable seed before the farmer plants them. The company also provides seed treatment services to protect the seed from diseases when planted into the soil.

"An increasing component of our business is to provide the best seed for maximizing production," explains Redfern. "While Redfern Farm Services provides these services in all locations for local distribution in smaller amounts, Redsper provides bulk handling facilities. We are the only organization providing this level and breadth of services in our marketplace. There are other niche market seed cleaning operations, but few have the diversity and ability to provide our range and quality of seed cleaning programs. Producers are growing new crops, such as soybeans, pulse crops and corn, many of which respond well to protective coatings on the seed that prevent disease. We have invested in equipment to give that added service."

As the name suggests, Accu-Test tests seeds for growers. It’s not a new activity, but it’s becoming more important as growers need to be certain, prior to seeding, that the seed they use will produce the results they need. They need to know the germination percentage and relative health of a seed, as seed does carry diseases. "The range of benefits is becoming more valuable, as the bar is raised," says Redfern. "As seed becomes more expensive, growers want to use crop enhancing products very judiciously, so producers are responding very positively to the crop inputs we offer. By using the best product available, farmers can now grow a 50-bushel crop, where they would otherwise have grown a 25-bushel crop."

Redfern Farm Services and its affiliates are well positioned to succeed in this service area. "The requirements to operate a processing or testing facility are stringent, so there are fewer companies willing to put forth the effort," Redfern says. "Seed testing has become more centralized. We’re one of a few seed labs in Manitoba, but not enough farmer know about our particular service.

We acquired this facility in Rivers, and observe that too many producers still expect that they have to send samples all the way to Winnipeg."

So how are customers responding to this seed retailing, processing and testing facility? "If we look at the volume of seed treatments and seed tests we are doing now versus what we completed a few years ago, the business certainly has grown," Redfern reports. "But there is still a significant opportunity for growers to use it more. A good number of the local cereal grain fields do not use certified seed, but we believe those numbers will grow. It’s the wave of the future."

Canola growers, on the other hand, are lining up. As an increasingly popular crop in western Canada, canola has responded well to genetic improvements and crop protection products. "Virtually no canola growers use their own seed anymore," beams Redfern. "Most will also pick the option of hybrid canola seed varieties, and we are a major retailer in this marketplace."

Respect for organic

Although Redfern talks easily about chemicalbased crop inputs contributing mightily to successful crop production, he is well aware that some support the virtues of growing organic. Part of his reverence for emerging technology is about understanding proper chemical use and where to draw the line.

"We refer to appropriate use of chemistry and the right amounts needed," Redfern says. "Today, two grams of chemical active ingredient per acre can do the same job that 50 grams did in the earlier formulas. The amount of chemical exposure to the environment is a fraction of what is used to be, because the products are more sophisticated and so are the practices for proper use."

Having said all that, Redfern provides services to the organic farmers in the region. "We support organic farming," he maintains. "Our facility in Rivers is one of the few certified organic processing facilities in Manitoba. We can and do process— clean, sort and separate—organically produced seed that farmers want to keep separate from seed produced with the use of chemicals."

"We are HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certified," Redfern states. "And we have maintained this organic certification. Interestingly, it’s a sign of our commitment to support all the various segments of crop production. Maintaining this certification and service has not really been very financially viable, but we haven’t wanted to take away the opportunity for farmers to embrace that alternative. We wanted them to have access to seed so they could accomplish their goals. We’re not sure where that market will be 20 years from now, but to this point, we have been able to bridge that philosophical difference in crop production by producers."

Why would someone like Redfern propel industrial farming practices, while acknowledging there are a segment of consumers and producers who support organic practices? This is not something that we discussed, but it’s clear that the cost-benefit analysis is slanted towards technology and innovation for efficiency, yield and cost savings. Also consider the demand put on our farms for high volumes at reduced prices. Unlike the hunter-gatherer age, when life revolved around basic survival, our post-industrial societies rely on farms to grow food on their behalf. If mainstream farming is expected to grow an adequate supply of food for an increasing population and to remain viable, organic isn’t always practical.

What Redfern did say was that North Americans enjoy an abundance of food, which is largely due to the use improved variety of seed via genetics. Growers now have more control over weed growth, soil fertility and seed quality. "The amount of food we grow on our fields has increased significantly in the last 35 years," he maintains.

Serving the community

Along with its main business focuses, Redfern Farm Services also has farm hardware and other products at several of its stores, equipment maintenance shops for its own extensive investments in iron, and an array of agronomic programs offered from each of its locations. "We have chosen to be in several segments of business," Redfern laughs, "but we’re not the same in every location. If you go to Carberry, it might look different from Hartney, because we offer different services depending on our position in the particular community."

"For example, we don’t have a farm hardware store in Brandon because it’s a larger city and it is already well served by a multitude of other retailers," Redfern goes on. "But in other communities, we may be the only farm hardware store. We try to adapt to what the market needs and what we are capable of. We do our part to fill these gaps in the services of the small towns. We are a major component of the fabric of south-western Manitoba, because we provide the products and services needed by the farming population to get the job done right."

Indeed, Redfern Farm Services contributes to the infrastructure of those small communities— both as a service provider and as one of the larger employers. "We keep communities employed and businesses alive," Redfern sums up.

It’s not just the company itself that ensures the sustainability of its communities, it’s also the staff. "The people within our organization wear lots of hats in supporting their communities, which is the case in a lot of smaller towns," Redfern explains. "Everyone is expected to be a APRIL 2010 • The Canadian Business Journal 111 community supporter in some way—whether that means becoming a town counsellor, a hockey coach or a volunteer fire fighter. A lot of our staff are involved in many ways in their communities."

"I have been able to participate in a good number of roles myself," he says. "In addition to wearing many hats for service to our community and our industry, I was given the opportunity to serve as executive and president of the board of Child and Family Services of southwestern Manitoba for some years, where I was able to contribute while gaining much insight. I was also able to be part of a locally based NGO for global awareness and development— the Marquis Project. While serving as chair of the board of that group, I travelled to several African countries, particularly to Uganda where we were able to work with a local, self-help development organization to support community development, food production and safe water. This NGO attempted to support other selfhelp organizations in their own countries. The members of this NGO were surely not likely to be adherents to my support of the benefits of chemical crop inputs and seed genetics development, but they saw fit to elect me to the role. I think it demonstrated vividly a tolerance for diversity of philosophy that says people from all backgrounds who care about development can indeed work together."

On the professional side, Redfern was involved in establishing CAAR, which has since grown from a western, regional independent organization to now represent the entire retailer crop input industry in Canada. "That’s an accomplishment that I am proud of," Redfern beams. "When we made the change to include everyone under one roof, we were able to respond to the public’s expectations that we would be good guardians of the industry. And we are. There are a number of voluntary programs we participate in to handle our products carefully. For example, all participants in our industry meet voluntary warehousing codes and get regularly audited to show we are meeting and exceeding standards. We believe it is important to have processes in place to properly handle our products—our staff, customers, and the entire population deserve that."

Passionate staff

With everything the company and its affiliates have to offer, you can understand that the business isn’t for those who expect to work 9 to 5. "Our customers’ have high expectations of us," Redfern states, "and the mere basics don’t cut it." Redfern knows the commitment it takes to make the company succeed and that’s why he carefully selects his employees.

"We have been able to attract great people who are interested in our customers," he says. "Everyone on our team, whatever their role, recognises that our success is based on the customer’s success, and we have to be able to help the customer to be more successful. If we don’t provide enough expertise to assist him to make efficient use of crop inputs to reach production goals, those mistakes will be costly to him. It looks good on us to have personnel who are strong in knowledge about our products."

"With field scouting and subsequent recommendations, our staff require knowledge of the weed and disease spectrum, crop potential, environmental conditions, and how much to invest in a crop," Redfern lists. "Not every company has that—most operate on a simpler and even lower cost model. We choose to be a group that brings added value and innovation. We couldn’t do that without our people. They are our best asset."

Last one standing

If there’s an overarching theme to this story, it seems to be that farming communities, practises and standards continue to evolve, and that the company’s success is due to its ability to change along with the times. Petroleum distribution for Imperial Oil, still one of the company’s core business segments, has transformed over the years.

"When we started, every community used to have its own petroleum agent," says Redfern. "There were 20-plus locations marketing petroleum for Esso in our marketplace. Now we are the sole distributor. Instead of being distributed from each of these communities, we distribute our bulk fuel products from two locations. We haul fuel as far as 100-plus miles to farmers, commercial operations and municipal entities— all responding to very short-period delivery mandates. How did we end up being the last one left? I think it’s because we embraced the sophistication that was required in the change that came with the ever-increasing demand for efficiency. Those who are willing to invest in the infrastructure and technology continue on—and we were willing. Now we are also providing delivery of bulk lubes to user locations."

And there it is: Redfern bleeds commitment to his community, his staff, his customers and his industry. You can see why Ray Redfern and his company was nominated for and inducted into the CAAR 2010 Retail Hall of Fame award for Lifetime Achievement. Serving Canada’s farmers is a demanding profession that endures incredible business challenges, and Redfern’s award reflects his dedication and achievement.

"The business has certainly evolved, and the reason we have been granted this recognition is that we have been able to continue to move forward through this evolution. It was definitely an honour. I was actually surprised to know I was nominated," Redfern laughs. "This recognition came because our organization was seen as one that embodies the positive things in this industry. We were identified as being successful at our business, and a large part had to do with positive customer feedback. I think that was the most important and most gratifying part, because the people who matter most recognise us for what we are. In addition, our staff also supported the nomination, which was also great, because it shows they believe in the organization and, well, me."

Redfern’s award was based on excellence in five categories: customer service and satisfaction; effective employee relations; business innovation, efficiency and safety; environmental stewardship; and finally, community and industry leadership. "I guess we can toot our own horn a little, that we were able to be recognized by those all-encompassing categories," Redfern says, shyly. He certainly can say that. And it is his commitment to those award-winning qualities that will keep Redfern Farm Services growing well into the future. Congratulations to Ray and all the teams at Redfern Farm Services!

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