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Innovative cooperative works on customer engagement

You have a lot on your mind these days, from harvest data to planning for 2014. As farming gets more complex savvy producers are looking for partners who can team up to put all the pieces together. I got a chance to sit down with the leader of an Ohio cooperative that's working to be that partner for customers and they're solidifying their relationship in new ways.

The deployment of technology in new ways is important to Farm Industry News and we want to know how businesses are taking all these tools and bringing them together. For Sunrise Cooperative, which serves a 25 county area in North Central Ohio, the answer is to create a web-based support system to augment their full-service business in new ways.

I sat down with George Secor, who heads up the cooperative based in Fremont, Ohio. The business has grown both organically and through acquisition to become a $700 million business with 26 million bushels of grain storage capacity. It's a full service business that offers customers everything from fuel sales to grain marketing support to crop inputs.

A few years ago Secor says he saw a need to connect with customers who were doing a majority of their business with the cooperative to find new ways to support those farm businesses. "Farmers have to sort through so much information these days and they can become inundated," Secor says.

The result is the Sunrise Knowledge Network, a proprietary website offered only to a limited number of customers who do a specific amount of business with the cooperative. Those customers are given access to a site that in just a year has grown into a robust resource of local information including videos to help with everything from planter setup to how to conduct a proper oil scan.

Users also have access to marketing information and detailed local weather - including wind speed and precipitation for proper application timing - as part of the site.

Secor teamed up with an agency - FLM - to create the site. "I started with Dr. David Ash who had worked with Adayana," Secor says. "He had moved on to FLM and I didn't care about where we worked as long as it was someone who could create what we needed."

The aim of the Sunrise Knowledge Network is to put at customer fingertips a useful tool they can access anytime to get answers. The cooperative's agronomists and product experts are the source for the videos, which are professionally produced, and they do dig into key local issues.

That's created a library of videos, and in the last few months the cooperative has added weekly "update" videos like a standing show to help farmers understand what's happening in the region. Their grain analysts even produce and end-of-day market recap video too.

That video work involves the local field agronomists telling their stories in the library of videos. "The first videos were difficult," says Bill Bever, agronomy sales manager, Sunrise. "We aren't used to doing that kind of thing, but now we have a system and it's working well."

While FLM the agency handles the editing, the "talent work" comes from people working in the field serving Sunrise customers.

What makes this system powerful for customers is its optimization for tablet computers. "I carry my iPad everywhere," says Mike Sunderman, a farmer-customer. "I can access those videos when I need to."

He points to a specific example. "We were looking at buying a used semi with 400,000 miles on it. I was interested in doing an oil scan to make sure that the semi was a good buy," he says.

Sunderman turned to his tablet computer and looked up oil scan on the Sunrise Knowledge Network, while he was at the location where the truck was - not in his office. Right there he got a quick primer on how to conduct the oil scan sample so he could check whether the machine was running to spec. Turned out it was and he bought the semi truck.

This is a proprietary network accessible only to Sunrise customers, Farm Industry News got a peek at what's happening behind the login wall, and what we found shows what's possible. But Sunrise's Secor knows what he's gotten into as well: "You have to be committed to do this and keep updating the information," he says. "That takes a lot of resources, but we think it’s a value for our customers."

The cooperative has made a demonstration video showing the site, you can get a sense of what they're doing by checking out this link.

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