GREENSBORO, N.C. — Syngenta North America leaders opened the company’s virtual media summit with an industry outlook under the theme “Leading the Way in the New Decade.”
Panelists Vern Hawkins, Syngenta Crop Protection president and North American region director; Trevor Heck, Syngenta Canada president; and Justin Wolfe, Syngenta Seeds president and North America region director, weighed in on the 2020 challenges and an optimistic outlook for 2021 and beyond.
What are you hearing about 2020 from Syngenta Channel Partners and growers?
Hawkins: “It’s been a challenging year for everyone in the industry. We’ve certainly continued to have a connection with our Channel Partner customers, and there’s a huge competitiveness in the business again this year. Certainly the challenges of how to engage with farmer customers and your employee base through COVID have been one contributor. The economics has been another contributor, and then, of course, we’ve had some devastating storms, which had added further challenge, whether you are in the west, or the south, or the Midwest.
“Our Channel Partners are certainly keen to get on to finishing this year and starting 2021. They’re mostly focused on helping farmers get ready for a 2021 season, which hopefully will be more normal, if we can say that today. And fall fertilizer is a big part of their business, so they’re looking forward to get as many of the acres prepped as possible, as well as a better engagement overall with customers and suppliers, as well as more economic opportunities to differentiate. So, a tough year, but people are very engaged, and they’re focused on setting the business for a healthier 2021, is what I’m hearing.”
Wolfe: “It’s been challenging, and I would say unprecedented if you look at all the stuff that’s been going on. You have a pandemic, we have a derecho, we have soybean trait uncertainty that’s getting a bit more clarity, but it’s kind of late in the year. Increasing regulatory pressures, trade challenges, political uncertainty, these are just a few things that they’re thinking about. Farmers need support probably more now than ever, they need innovation and good options to be successful.
“One area we’ve seen a lot of uncertainty this year is with farmers navigating through what decision they’re going to make with soybean traits, for example. Because there’s been kind of one show with traits over the years, and there’s been some uncertainty with the XtendFlex Soybeans. That’s getting a bit more clarity, too, and we’ve seen farmers really trying to grapple with the decisions, what are they going to do and how are they going to make these decisions?
“These are areas where we try to help them navigate that, making sure that we’re in a good position to offer them choice, so that as they’re firming up their decisions, that we’re in a place to be able to help supply them so they can grow their crop next year.”
Heck: “2020 in Canada started out like a pretty normal year for the most part. There were opportunities and challenges. One of the challenges that we had was near-drought conditions in some areas in western Canada, and then around Calgary, north of the city, and other areas across the prairies, we had spots where crop was still in the field.
“There was a lot of ambiguity around what 2020 was going to look like. In the end, if you look at Canada overall, the weather was better than average. We had a couple challenging years, depending on where you are across the country, and in the end, the crop that has been harvested for the most part, we still have some areas that have a little ways to go. It’s one of the biggest crops that we’ve seen in 15 years in Canadian agriculture.
“And so if you look at that, combined with the export situation right now, there has been quite positive exports of commodities, and the prices have improved overall.”
Looking ahead to 2021, is there a sense of optimism?
Hawkins: “Yeah, certainly if you look at what’s happened to the row crop commodity prices over the last four to six weeks, that’s created some optimism versus the pricing opportunity that we’ve been looking at most of the summer. But there is still a lot of tightness in the economics, even with those improved prices.
“But the fact that 2020 has just been so challenging, there is sort of a refresh that seems to be connected to starting a new year, and we often experience that. So, I’m not under any false pretense that 2021 is going to be a super year, but I think there are opportunities there that folks are getting themselves positioned to capture, and we’re certainly getting ourselves staged to be well-positioned to assist and support and guide where appropriate.”
Wolfe: “From a seeds perspective, it is nice to see the commodity price come back. If you look at when we built our plans originally, it wasn’t on that assumption that the current commodity prices would for sure. But I’m really excited, I’m excited for 2021, as probably a lot of people are, just to get out of 2020 and hopefully have a bit of renewed energy as we go forward.
“I’m really happy with the position we’re in as a seed business. This is probably the strongest position we’ve been in, in a long, long time, to offer really wide trait choice options in soybeans on some really great genetics, as well as we have a great corn lineup as well. And between both of those areas, I’m quite excited for our ability to be able to serve farmers well this next year.
“The other thing that’s really exciting for us as we continue this theme of really investing on our future, we announced a while back the R&D center that we’re going to be putting in northern Illinois. It’s about a $35 million customer experience center that’s going to be focused on seed and digital. We start the construction in 2021 with the intent to open up in 2022. So, we have a lot to be thankful for, for where we are, but we’re also really hopeful about the future, as well.”
Heck: “There’s more optimism for 2021. Once we got the start of 2020 there was just so much ambiguity around COVID, and also the weather conditions here. Then getting through that one season, we found a way, growers and retailers and Syngenta found a way to support each other and interact in a positive way, and we got through the season. And now it really comes down to making sure that there’s markets for that crop going forward.
“Overall, the contacts that I talk to in the industry are more positive on 2021 than 2020, but, of course, we still have a lot of ambiguity around the business, and cash flows have been tight over the last few years. But we’re optimistic, I would say, versus the two previous years in Canada.”
Under the theme of leading the way in a new decade, what is Syngenta doing to make that a reality?
Wolfe: “We’re in a really great position on both soybeans and corns. We’re providing access to probably the widest soybean trait options available in the market, and we’ve put ourselves in a good position to be able to offer farmers that choice, so I feel really good about our soybean lineup. We’re also in a great position in corn. We have over 40% plus of our products this year are in new and growth products, and they’re on, with above and below ground pest resistance with E-Z Refuge.
“So, this is probably the strongest position we’ve been in, in corn in quite some time. We’re seeing a lot of great (yield) performance results this year, if you compare to prior years versus this year we feel like we’re really starting to get some products that are performing well on farm, so we’re very excited about that. You look at the existing corn lineup, the pipeline of corn, we’re going to continue to fill the segments. We don’t have corn to go in all segments at every part of the market, but we are rapidly filling that, and we expect over the next decade we’ll continue to have a very full lineup of corn.”
Hawkins: “Certainly on the technology innovation side, we’ve been blessed with continued refresh of our portfolio with stronger products from a performance and benefit perspective — fungicide, seed care, herbicide. We’ve always had a commitment with our Channel Partners to bring them a brand ladder that’s complete.
“That’s important because we have a relationship with Channel that recognizes they have a number of different types of growers in terms of their needs, some very much on the technology end of the spectrum, high (return on investment) focus, some more on the value-oriented end, and looking for maybe something that’s just adequate. It might be because of the type of farmland that they have, or the type of operating budget that they have.
“We’ve engaged a lot over the last few years, not only to bring new products to the top end of the ladder, but also to make sure that they had the tools in the middle of the brand ladder or at the lower end of it, to help address some of those different needs of our farmer customers. It’s really important to have a combination of delivering the existing business in a supportive way, as well as reinforcing the partnership that a retailer has with Syngenta about their investing in a long-term future because of the new products and the support that we’re giving them, and that’s especially important right now when a number of our competitors are going through change in who leads their company, as well as what their strategies are in terms of how they go to market. This is a really important part of how we’re leading the way in the here and now, but connected to a broader future.”
Heck: “We’ve seen Syngenta continue to invest in a number of different ways, we’ve just had a biologicals acquisition that’s core to our strategy going forward. If you look across Canada, we’ve launched a number of new fungicide technologies, they’ve been step changes in the industry, and growers responded, they invested in those products over the past year.
“We’ve also invested significantly in our team in Canada. I think that this is a really great opportunity for Syngenta and for the future in agriculture. If you look at the corn and soybean business, we’ve added a number of people heading up our corn and soybean business, as well as scientists and agronomists in the field, as well. Syngenta’s investing, and I think that’s the key to moving the business forward and leading the way as we move forward.”