A little over a year ago, COVID-19 started to sweep across the United States, and companies rushed to find ways to continue to provide and meet consumer needs despite not being able to meet face-to-face. The pandemic has globally affected us all insurmountably so through sickness and loss, yet the ag industry has continued to grow and do its part in looking after the safety of its employees and customers while also continuing their work.
An executive roundtable during the online 2021 Commodity Classic Conference discussed how each of their companies is continuing to work to meet customers' needs amid this "new normal."
"The thing I know all our companies take seriously is safety first," said Justin Wolfe, North America regional director for Syngenta Seeds. "If you do not keep your employees safe, you are never going to keep the customer safe as well. We took proactive action early in the pandemic. We were concerned about how we were going to keep the continuity of how we serve our customers. Can we get our products made? How are we going to do our research plots?"
Wolfe said the Syngenta team stepped up to find new ways to get jobs done despite needing to social distance.
"Even today, we have managed to continue work with almost no spread of the risk of COVID-19 internally, so the measures we took and put in place were effective," he said.
"As we enter the second spring here with this pandemic, nothing has changed. We are still committed to the health and safety of our employees and our customers. Also, the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital tools. We are doing large-scale conferences via Zoom, which have never been in a virtual format in the past. We are excited to move out of this pandemic and go back to business as usual in some areas, but there is no question that COVID-19 taught us a few lessons we are going to take with us moving forward."
Staying connected virtually
Chris Turner, the U.S. country division head within the Crop Science division of Bayer, said that Bayer, too, has lessons learned from the pandemic.
"When we were first thrown into the pandemic, we all had to adjust our business," Turner said. "We took a conservative approach in the measures we implemented for safety. We are still adhering to a lot of those today to ensure we have product well-positioned for a successful 2021 season."
Turner also adds how technology has been a huge means for continuing to work amid a pandemic.
"In terms of what we have learned, we have learned how to use Zoom and Teams and tools like those, and I think some of the technology we are using more in business is going to be here to stay, whether that looks like interacting with customers on a video call or through virtual training," he said. "We have reached more people through virtual means on training platforms than we would have in the past."
Thanks to virtual conferences and training sessions, some individuals have been able to join in when they could not if otherwise.
"A lot of our feedback has been positive, and we have had effective dialogue with our consumers," Turner said. "There is definitely a lot of bad that comes with a pandemic, but there is also some good. I would hate to see how we would have handled this 20 years ago when we did not have technology like we do today, but fortunately, we have it available to us."
Scott Kay, vice president of U.S. Crop Protection for BASF Agricultural Solutions in North America, said that technology has also been a big help from an international company perspective.
"For BASF, I think I met more colleagues via virtual calls these last few months than I would have if we had put together a meeting, involving a week's worth of travel," Kay said. "There is a lot of benefits to having increased this technology across the industry, especially when it comes to communicating to our customers."
Judd O’Connor, president of the U.S. Commercial Business for Corteva Agriscience, said the pandemic has escalated the use of digital tools and virtual capabilities well beyond a decade quicker than probably it would have otherwise.
"We are an industry that values face-to-face interaction, but technology has helped us stay connected," O’Connor said. "We are reaching a lot of people in all segments of the business. The next step for us is asking, 'Whatever the new normal is, what's the expectation going forward? What is the new business cadence going to look like in the post-pandemic world?' I do not think there is a scenario where we are going to go back to normal or back completely to the way it was before."