Customer success equals seed farm prosperity
There's one underlying philosophy at Keesling Seed Farm, Inc., near Chase, Kan., and it's one every employee strives to meet every day.
"The customer is the only reason why we're in business," said Doug Keesling. "They're why our business grows." Keesling, a fifth generation seedsman and farmer, explained that every employee wants to make sure each customer has the information and tools he needs to grow and harvest a successful crop, and ultimately run a profitable business.
The Keesling Seed Farm has come a long way since its early days, but that philosophy has continued. From the first hybrids, to today's biotechnology offerings Doug and his father Don Keesling keep their customers' needs in mind. While Keesling Seed Farm is still farmer-owned, it has grown to a size that's comparable to larger retail seed businesses. Doug and Don Keesling attribute this growth to their available seed varieties, as well as the extra service they offer clients.
Listening to customer needs
The Keeslings sell seed predominantly from Monsanto and Stine. They offer a wide variety of seeds, from wheat to row crops and even grasses for wildlife food plots. "We sell wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, sunflowers, canola, alfalfa, forages, sweet corn, and grasses," Doug Keesling said. Corn and soybeans are a large portion of their business, but the company also is the largest grain sorghum dealer in the United States.
Inventory is customer-driven, Doug Keesling added.
"The customer dictates what we do," he said. They're constantly on the lookout for new trends in crop rotations, agronomic practices, and even business plans.
Using their support from their company affiliations, along with the knowledge of their staff, they collaborate with customers to fill particular needs.
"We really have to be in touch with our customers to know what they want and when they want it," Doug Keesling said. "And, we have to follow it up with service." Typical hours are anything but that at the Keesling farm. Because they sell both summer and fall crops, they have to balance harvest and planting seasons and divide their labor accordingly.
"Our harvest season for our farm is usually in the middle of our customers' planting seasons," Doug Keesling said. Doug and his father Don usually divide up the harvest labor according to season. While Doug is in charge of the day-to-day operations, he handles fall harvest. Don enjoys the wheat side more, and so takes care of wheat harvest labor.
Even though crops such as corn and soybeans, which offer biotech traits, are a large part of their sales, wheat seed continues to be a profitable portion of the Keeslings' business, Doug Keesling said. "Our customers are looking to grow a quality wheat, for sure," he said. "But, they also select the variety that will bring them bushels first." Keesling Seed Farm is a grower and conditioner of registered and certified wheat seed from AgriPro and for the Kansas Wheat Alliance.
Growing and harvesting a crop begins with selecting varieties suitable to each farmer's field location and operating parameters. Doug Keesling and his staff work with their clients to discuss planting options before any seed is ordered. Together they look through the latest research test plot results from the public and private sectors, and choose what's right for each need.
Climate history and conditions are a critical part of the selection process. The Keesling seed business covers most of the central portion of the state, which can be quite varied in its weather patterns. This also affects the disease, pest and weed pressures from year to year. There are some hard and fast rules the Keeslings tend to follow when recommending seeds, though.
"Our farmers choose varieties in the area that offer soilborne mosaic resistance, and good varieties with resistance to strains of leaf rust," he added.
The extra touch
The Keeslings take pride in the service they offer customers, as well as the seeds they sell. The family has associate dealers located in a four-county radius from their headquarters near Chase. This allows them to have experienced staff on hand to answer client questions, and expand their business as well.
"We meet their needs," Doug Keesling said. "Whether we need to help them adjust their planters, or help them with their spraying and seed cleaning, we take care of them." The seed farm offers customers services such as soil sampling, GPS work, variable rate application assistance, and help at planting and harvest. They've even expanded into offering grain handling and marketing grain storage bins.
"We sell the equipment to deliver seed in bulk to the field, and we also deliver it as well to the field," Doug Keesling said. "We want to keep the planters full and farmers in the fields."
Keesling Seed Farm has full time certified crop advisors on staff to scout fields and make general recommendations for seed, chemicals and equipment. And, there are former corporate seed representatives and seed researchers on staff to answer questions before and after the sale. Everyone brings a little bit of knowledge to the table, Doug Keesling said. "We try to offer and do anything we can to help make our customers happy," he said.
Keeping current on agronomic and economic research is important, Doug Keesling said. Passing on knowledge to their clients is one basic way to improve everyone's bottom lines.
"Much of our work is research-oriented," he said. "We do a lot of our own test plots." They try to study seeding rates, treatments, drill spacings, as well as chemical and fertilizer applications and timing. The Keeslings also keep up with the test plots from the public and private researchers, and even encourage their customers to conduct their own research.
"We've always had people curious to make side by side comparisons and so we sell them a few bags and encourage them to plant them and grow their own test plots," Don Keesling said. Today's GPS precision ag equipment makes this even easier than ever, Doug added.
Additionally, off-farm involvement in organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Quails Forever, the Kansas Wheat Commission, and other commodity groups, help the Keeslings keep up with the latest news in their field, and even bring new sales opportunities.
"I'm really involved in Pheasants Forever and Quails Forever and our specialty food plot seed sales grew from that," Doug Keesling said. "We were growing food plots ourselves from our own special blends of forages, and then we started recommending them to others and it just grew from there."
As Chairman of the Kansas Wheat Commission, Doug Keesling is in a unique spot to learn about the latest research, education and promotion efforts of wheat, and can share that with the family's clients. For example, the new Kansas Innovation Center for Advanced Plant Design, a collaboration of Kansas Wheat, Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and private investors, is quickly on its way to reality. Once it's completed, the Manhattan, Kan., Innovation Center, and its business entity Heartland Plant Innovations will be able to house research in grain sorghum, wheat and native plants. The hope of seed salesmen, like the Keeslings, is that research coming from the center will help drive not only the yields of their crops higher, but improve the qualities as well, he said.
Doug Keesling has also served on the advisory board of the International Grains Program at Kansas State, and on the board of Plains Grain, Inc. While it may be difficult at times to balance his off-farm obligations with his farming business and family life, he said it's important to be active in the industry in order to have the information his customers need for their business decisions.
"For us as seedsmen and farmers, we hope that the technology from Kansas State will increase yields in wheat and keep us competitive with corn and soybeans," Doug Keesling said.
Adapting to change
Farming practices have certainly changed over the five generations that Keesling Seed Farm has been in business, and the family knows that they need to adapt and help their customers adapt as well. "Farming isn't just about agronomy anymore," Doug Keesling said. "Farmers need more management wisdom and advice." Filling that need is how the Keesling family defines success.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.