Emma: Customer Concept

Today’s post is a continuation of my previous post where I answered specific questions from an AAWH follower, Win. One of the questions he asked was about customers.

It appears that you (i.e. harvesters) drive from one farm to another harvesting the crop of individual farmers; how many farms do you harvest in a given area? It seems like a monumental task moving all the equipment from one place to another; do you try and maximize the number of farms in a particular area?
It’s true that we do move from one place to another, farm to farm harvesting crops. For us it’s from the Oklahoma/Texas border all the way north to the North Dakota/Canadian border. Summer wheat harvest typically takes us to Gotebo, Okla., Elk City, Okla, Andale, Kan., Gregory, S.D., and Rolla, N.D. Depending on where we are we will harvest for one to four farmers in the area. It really depends on the size of the farming operation, how soon we need to be at our next schedules destination, and how quickly we can get the crop out.

For example, we don’t want a farmer waiting on us to finish another farm when his crop is ready and sitting in the field where it is vulnerable to weather.We don’t tend to maximize the number of farms in a particular area, but we do try to schedule as many acres as we can commit to. When a farmer makes a commitment to us and lets us know in advance that he wants us to return for another year, we’ll in turn make a commitment to him. We don’t want to commit to any acres if we know there is the slightest chance we cannot harvest them. If we do finish ahead of schedule and the weather is just right we will ask around and try to pick up more work in an area. We don’t over schedule ourselves. We don’t want to get done with one area and have only a few days to wash, pack and move to the next town.

How loyal are your customers? Generally, do they return and hire you annually? Do you know who all your customers are before you leave home or do you pick some up along the way? How do you acquire customers?
If a farmer will commit to us we will be there, but we have to know ahead of time so we can schedule – and make sure we can fulfill that commitment. We consistently have the same customers every year in the towns I mentioned. We may pick up work here or there, but we can’t count on that. The best thing for a farmer to do is call and commit right away, and don’t wait on us as an insurance policy (using us when he couldn’t get the crop out for any number of reasons).

We acquire new customers a few different ways. One, we have a good reputation. People in an area can stop by while we’re cutting and like what they see and may want you to their crop that year, or the next. References are also important. Farmers we cut for may recommend us to a different farmer and they may not be from the same area. Other harvesters also may call on us if they know of a potential job that they are not able to take. Three, we advertise. Many harvesters advertise online and have their own website. Others use the U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc. website, or local and widespread newspapers such as High Plains Journal. You may even hear an ad on a radio station, or two.  Convenient locations are also important. Sometimes you can park your campers next to the road advertising that you’re in the area, and ready to work.

Typically, do you interact with other custom harvesters?  Is it a friendly environment/community or cutthroat?
Custom Harvesters are basically a family based business even if somebody starts their own harvesting business. More times than not, a start-up is from an ag related background. Just like farming it usually gets passed down from generation to generation. Everybody tends to know everybody and it can make for a very friendly atmosphere and not cutthroat at all. We’re members of an organization called U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc., based in Hutchinson, Kan. We have an annual convention the first week of March where all custom harvest members come to learn and interact with their colleagues. It’s a place where we can gather and learn everything we need to know that may have changed since the last harvest (law changes, new machinery, and safety just to name a few).

There are many times when more than one harvest crew is in the same place cutting. Sometimes when there is down time due to rain crews may get together and head out to supper at a local restaurant, or get out the football and play a game or two. It’s a very relaxed environment when it comes to your competition.
With the Richenberger’s retiring, does that mean a loss of a customer?
I wrote about the Richenberger family a few weeks ago, and yes their retirement means we’ll be losing a customer. We’ll need to find work to fill in.

What is the pay scale concerning the farmer? Is it a flat rate per acre, a percentage of what he is paid for his grain, or something else?
Each custom harvester is his own business, so pay scale varies. Work can be billed by the acre, by the bushel or by the distance the grain is taken from the field to the elevator or storage. It can also be a combination. It strictly depends on the harvester’s operation and what they have worked with their farmer.

Is this the annual income for a custom harvester or is there a revenue stream during the winter months?
This is not the only income most harvesters have, although it definitely is their main source. During the off season some harvesters may haul grain for elevators or cattle, they may run repair businesses, or farm themselves. They may even have a job in town. We spend the off season repairing equipment like combines and tractors, we even work on antique tractors. It’s not always our equipment, but other farmers. The off season is when we have time to work on our machines and carry out maintenance and inspections to keep everything in tip top shape for the next harvest.

Be safe and God bless!

Emma can be reached at emma@allaboardharvest.com. All Aboard 2011 is sponsored by High Plains Journal and DuPont Crop Protection.

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