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Rocky Schumacher steps into retirement, leaves legacy

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Rocky Schumacher just wrapped up a 41-year career in agricultural input sales, and a good share of those years were spent as general manager for the iconic AGSCO Inc., based in Grand Forks, N.D. The company sales force distri...

Rocky Schumacher, 65, has retired after 41 years in ag input sales - most notably as former general manager of the former AGSCO Inc., in Grand Forks, N.D. (Trevor Peterson, Agweek)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Rocky Schumacher just wrapped up a 41-year career in agricultural input sales, and a good share of those years were spent as general manager for the iconic AGSCO Inc., based in Grand Forks, N.D. The company sales force distributed chemicals and fertilizer in four states and Canada, driving "Ryder yellow" vehicles.

Schumacher, 65, was raised on a farm in Joliette, N.D., and after graduating from high school in 1969 he spent a year at the University of North Dakota. In 1976, at age 25, he became manager of the Joliette Farmers Grain Co., which handled AGSCO products.

Larry Brown and Clarence Sande started Agricultural Supply Co. in 1934, in Grand Forks, and by the late 1970s, Larry's son, Russ, had become the president. At that time, the Browns asked Schumacher if he'd become a sales representative, based in Pembina County, and by 1979 Schumacher had become regional sales manager in Grafton, N.D.

"I was there for eight years and got very heavily involved in the potato industry and sugar beets," he recalls.

In 1990, Russ retired, succeeded by his son, Randy Brown.


Innovation hits

Schumacher was around in 1994 when AGSCO innovated "out-and-back returnable containers" - stainless steel kegs of 15 gallons to 250 gallons that were returned after use and didn't require clean-out on the farm. Farmers were charged only for what was purchased.

The kegs initially were developed for on-farm seed treatments. Schumacher asked to do a pilot project for using the technique for herbicides. "I was the first pilot project of putting 2,4-D in (kegs)," he says. "I would take them out to the farms and farmers would spray. I'd pick them up at night, weigh them and return them for more."

The company was the first to affix barcodes to the containers for ease of tracking.

Other larger countries talked to AGSCO about their process, but it was labor intensive and some companies were too large to replicate it.

In 1995, the Browns built their Ag Depot business. Because of the returnable containers and "out-and-backs," they needed an addition that was designed for bulk chemical handling.

Randy Brown innovated the concept of in-house capital financing with a company called Capital Harvest. Farming was going through periods of droughts and higher interest rates, which meant farmers with difficulty getting loans through conventional lenders could purchase inputs.

AGSCO also started Ag Supplier, an internet chemical marketing company. "We would extract some value out of the chemicals by taking service costs out of it," he says. "Our goal was to have service-level pricing." The customer could buy the product on the internet but without buying field monitoring or other services.


The concept was franchised.

Ag Depot served as a storage and shipping center for AGSCO, and it became a public warehouse for other chemical companies. "It was very environmentally safe and so that was a good part of our growth," Schumacher says.

The company grew from $13 million in sales in 1988 to $100 million in sales when they sold in 2007. In the end, the 43 retail sales people in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana and one in Canada, where they marketed a seed treatment. United Agri Products Inc. purchased the company and a year later was itself acquired by Crop Production Services, now a marketing division of Agrium.

In the 1950s, Larry Brown had instituted the use of distinctive pickups. Initially, the company sales people drove station wagons with stripes on them to "look like circus wagons." By the mid-1960s, they changed to pure "Ryder yellow" pickups.

"I always told the farmers that they could see them coming from five miles away, so if they were still in the yard when we got there to make sales calls they deserved to buy something," he says. "They had plenty of time to hide."

Changing times

In 2010, Schumacher capped his long ag career with a six-year stint as a northern Red River Valley representative for Peterson Farms Seed. Schumacher has seen many changes - fewer farmers, complex rotations, the dominance of corn and soybeans, and the decline in manufacturers.

"If the mergers go together that are now in the works, as far as Bayer and Monsanto, there'll basically be four manufacturers left," he says. Larger companies "will continually tie things up so they get more of the market share and make it tougher for people to have access to the growers."


Schumacher thinks the farming complexity will continue and the role for sales people will become even more valuable.

Mike Larson, a colleague at Peterson Farms Seed, says Schumacher was one of the best, and one of the keys was his relationships with growers. He says Schumacher was special to the field.

"I've been to farm shows with him, but when I'm with him, I'm completely invisible," he says. "He cares about people. He's so in the moment with them. He's not distracted and puts himself in their shoes as producers."

AGSCO Inc. of Grand Forks, N.D., was sold in 2007. The sales staff was famous for arriving in their distinctive yellow pickup trucks. (Photo supplied by former AGSCO Inc. employees)

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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