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Extension > Source - Fall 2006 > Extension teaches farmers about "Winning the game"

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Extension teaches farmers about "Winning the game"

Real-life simulations enhance real-life marketing skills

As senior financial services team leader for AgStar, a farm credit company in Mankato, Dennis Kelly helps his clients with production, marketing and risk management issues. Six years ago, AgStar began sponsoring Winning the Game, a University of Minnesota Extension Service program to help farmers market corn, soybeans and wheat more effectively. "We need unbiased information where we are not trying to manage a client's business," Kelly said. "The fact that it comes from the University goes over well with the clients."

Dennis Kelly

Agstar Financial Services

Dennis Kelly

Helping farmers increase their profitability is an important priority for Extension. Winning the Game is an effective tool. Since it was introduced in 2000, Winning the Game has reached close to 5,000 producers across Minnesota. At half-day sessions taught by Extension educators, farmers learn how to secure better average prices for their crops by sharpening their marketing skills and implementing a plan. Just teaching farmers to avoid common mistakes can really enhance their income. The lessons are delivered through a lifelike game in which participants make a year's worth of grain-marketing decisions. The feedback is immediate, and it's compared with 15 years' worth of actual market prices.

The impact of Winning the Game has been significant. Follow-up surveys reveal a remarkable pattern of behavior change. In 2004–05, for example, nearly 700 producers around the state attended Winning the Game programs. More than 94 percent of those who responded to the survey said they followed through and developed a pre-harvest marketing plan for their 2005 crop. Within that group, 89 percent implemented their plans.

"Without a doubt, attending a workshop has made a big difference for me," said Dan Erickson, who along with his father, farms 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa in Freeborn County near Alden. "I have seen the results. I've learned that you need to think about this stuff early, maybe even a year ahead of time. The 2008 crop is already trading. The point of the program is that we need to think about these things ahead of time."

The game concept came from the University of Nebraska, but the University of Minnesota's Center for Farm Financial Management, Extension economists Bob Craven and Wynn Richardson, and University grain marketing specialist Ed Usset, took the game to a new level. Funding from the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association bolstered the effort.

"There was clearly a need for a process to help people arrive at their decisions," said Craven, who in addition to teaching Winning the Game concepts, farms 1,600 acres near Jackson. "It had to be simple, straightforward and easy to act on, without getting too complicated. We decided to step back and focus on some key basics. Plus, we had a fun game to play. It was a fairly simple message with some key take-home points for the producers to grasp."

The series has grown to three parts: 1) Gain the Pre-harvest Marketing Advantage; 2) Launch Your Pre-harvest Marketing Plan; and 3) The Post-harvest Marketing Challenge. Craven and Usset have plans to roll out a fourth component, Launch Your Postharvest Marketing Plan, this winter. "Winning the Game: The Dairy Edition" was introduced last winter.

The courses are hosted in Minnesota communities by local sponsors, such as banks, insurance companies and grain elevators. The sponsor pays a fee to the University, secures the facility, sets the date and solicits attendees.

"The sponsorship model was a tremendous breakthrough for us," said Usset, who developed the curriculum for the Minnesota program. "The sponsor is paying us to do what we do best—educate people. The sponsors have incentive. They take the job that we at the University were never that good at—getting people in the seats."

Through sponsors, the workshops reach audiences that might not otherwise attend Extension events. No matter where they come from, however, attendees have the same goal in mind. They want to learn more about marketing. And they want to leave with clear ideas about how to put new practices in place.

For Kelly, who sees the vast array of marketing materials available to farmers today, it's an educational formula that works. "It's a good mix of teaching and hands-on learning," he said. "It's fun and in the end there's some competition involved. It's a good classroom situation. You're not sitting there listening to someone talk for five hours."

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Dan Erickson with cows

Dan Erickson, who farms in Freeborn County, sharpened his marketing skills by attending four different Winning the Game workshops.

Changes in Farm Management Behavior

Winning the Game workshop participants reported the following behavior changes in evaluations completed six months after attending a program.

  • 90% developed a pre-harvest marketing plan
  • 98% used a revenue-based crop insurance to manage production and price risk
  • 76% developed a post-harvest marketing plan and 90% of those who developed a postharvest plan, implemented the plan
  • 68% stored less corn than the previous year and 61% stored less soybeans

Annie's Project reaches out to Minnesota's farm women

Debra Johnson

Debra Johnson

At the same time Winning the Game workshops were enjoying their sixth season of success, a series of programs for farm women debuted in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Annie's Project, a six-week educational program to help farm women become better business partners, was introduced in seven cities. From February through April 2006, 140 women attended courses from Grand Forks, N.D., to Thief River Falls, Minn. Topics included business and marketing plans, crop insurance programs, and retirement plans.

Debra Johnson, who runs a grain farm with her husband near Alexandria, Minn., attended the course in Fergus Falls. "I benefited most from the marketing aspect. I am able to understand it a little bit better now; otherwise I was scared of (marketing). We studied the basics but because we have crop insurance, it helped us think through how many bushels we could or should market ahead of time. And I learned you need to know your cost of production to know where to lock in a good price.

"I encouraged my husband to do more forward marketing this year than in the past. So we're getting our feet wet."

Most of the Minnesota and North Dakota participants came from farms of 2,000 acres or larger, said Extension agribusiness educator Bret Oelke. Two-thirds of the Minnesota participants had spouses who previously attended Winning the Game programs.

The series was a collaboration of Extension in North Dakota and Minnesota, the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Oelke said the group hopes to expand to a minimum of 10 Minnesota sites in 2006–07.

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