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Farming 2.0: Innovating an Industry

20 April 2010

When our Sales 2.0 community speaks of “farming,” we typically refer to a certain kind of selling by nurturing existing customers. Without “planting seeds” — taking the time to build trusted relationships and providing valuable and relevant information rather than “pitching” — the rewards of a revenue yield can diminish or stop completely. In Iowa, farming means something entirely different.

Today’s post is about real farming: the multibillion-dollar American agriculture industry, which, like approaches to selling, is on the brink of a massive transformation.

I have just returned from Iowa, where I shadowed clean energy entrepreneur Jack Oswald (who is also my husband). Jack and his team at SynGest Inc. are working with the local farming community, along with local politicians, economic-development professionals and financiers. Their collective goal is to make the current outputs of farming exponentially more valuable and to remove the social trade-offs we have experienced in the food vs. fuel debate.

Look at farming-industry leaders who, similarly, are experimenting with new ways to increase the productivity and results of traditional farming through the use of innovative practices and new technologies. What is most interesting is they are going about this, not by using more land or growing more corn or soybeans per acre, but by maximizing the value and simultaneous production of multiple products from the same crops we have been producing for ages.

Sales leaders can learn from this experience and recognize that, instead of taking a Sales 1.0 approach to increased revenue, which typically involves hiring more sales reps in field sales positions, they can think like Sales 2.0 practitioners instead. By re-organizing the sales resources they already have and leveraging or sometimes even replacing their expensive field reps with phone and Web selling specialists, they can significantly increase sales productivity and optimize results.

One example of modern farming innovation is a new approach to the production of nitrogen fertilizer, which is critical to the growth of food crops for both humans and animals. In current large-scale farming practice, natural gas is used to produce fertilizer, or “anhydrous ammonia,” as it is called in the farming world. Because we are so dependent on fertilizer for our food production, 3% of all energy consumption in the U.S. goes to producing fertilizer. To meet the demands of American farmers, we have to import 60% from other countries. Like the challenges we have with the supply of fossil fuels, we have similar energy issues related to feeding our population. By switching the input for making fertilizer from natural gas to biomass (things such as corn cobs, which grow in plentiful supply as a waste product in places such as Iowa), farmers can transform an energy- and carbon-intensive process into a clean energy approach. The new technologies, made possible by SynGest, not only produce fertilizer, but also food products (human food–grade oil and protein) and biofuels simultaneously, making every ear of corn that begins the process exponentially more valuable. And perhaps most importantly, the new SynGest factories will bring thousands of new jobs and new revenue to the Midwest, revitalizing and improving life in rural communities. Farming 2.0 will help accelerate the biggest economic revolution the U.S. agricultural industry has seen in the past 100 years.

Experimentation, pilot programs and testing  — all hallmarks of Sales 2.0 — are also taking place in farming. New crop planting, cultivation and harvesting are constantly being conducted by organizations such as the USDA and Iowa State University to continually improve the productivity of crops needed for the new process. While corn is plentiful across the Midwest, certain perennial grasses are showing promise as even higher-yielding specialty energy crops that can be grown on land not well suited for food crops.

Like Sales 2.0 professionals, 2.0 farmers are tracking, measuring and refining their processes constantly, doing experiments and looking for ways to optimize results. But as with Sales 2.0 skeptics, some farmers are reluctant to change the way they have worked the fields their whole lives, often preceded by their parents, grandparents and generations before them. As new practices and technologies are proved definitively by measurable and repeatable processes, those who are leading us into the future — be they farmers, investors or sales professionals — will be distinguished from those who are reluctant to change and destined to lag behind.

In what ways are you innovating in your industry? Are you questioning existing practices and testing new ones? Is this helping your business?