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To make this work with growers – a notoriously tough crowd – Donnarie knew she needed to get the backing of someone with credibility. She tapped Rob Sharkey, a self-proclaimed “former farm kid,” a grain grower himself and the host of the Shark Farmer Podcast, whose listener base tops out at 17,000 per episode. Rob recalls his first conversations with Donnarie: “With corporations, it’s always the same – inputs and yields, blah blah blah. The conversations I was having with Donnarie were different. She was fascinated in getting to know the story of the farmer.” And they did. Together, Donnarie and Rob made 25 stops on the tour, talking to farmers of all stripes (and crops). They followed proud growers through acres of corn, but also grapevines, sweet potatoes, tobacco and rice. They heard every variety of story, too – from the mundane to the heart wrenching. One tobacco farmer talked about the pressure he faces from well-meaning critics who question his line of work. Another grower shared the story of the farming accident that took his eyesight and the passion that keeps him committed to the industry. One called himself the “Puff Daddy of Cotton” and thanked Rob and Donnarie for “making agriculture cool.”

They found their groove. “If it was pure, agronomic talk, Rob would take the lead. If it was about family, I would jump in,” says Donnarie. And it was the pair’s chemistry that started getting the attention of growers on social media, who are fast becoming “a bit of a subculture,” says Rob. People started mentioning them on Twitter, saying, “stop on by.”
Knowing growers
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Best meal?
That trust was hard earned – Donnarie knows her customers well. By then, she had been talking to them on social media for a year, beginning with her maternity leave in 2016, when she made a promise to herself. “I decided the only work I was going to do on leave was invest time in talking to growers,” she recalls. Up at all hours of the night with a new baby, she had plenty of opportunities. By the time she returned from leave, her personal Twitter following had doubled and, more importantly, she began to get inside her customers’ heads. What she got from talking with growers on Twitter was something no product brochure or sales call can replace – a genuine connection. At the time, “BASF had been spending a whole lot of money on videos that weren’t generating much interest on social media,” Donnarie remembers. The Dirt Road Tour needed to be different. She wanted to hear the stories of people she talked to online, not talk about BASF products. Though she got the green light from her direct manager, she stayed mostly under the radar within BASF. “Nobody knew I was going. Nobody knew it would be on social media. I wanted it to be organic, not corporate,” she says. With that came a healthy fear of the unknown and faith in herself. “I was so afraid someone was going to say, ‘No, don’t do that’ or ‘make sure you do this.’ But I feel like when I have a good idea, and I truly know it’s going to work, not much will stand in my way.”

Take no shortcuts
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Halfway into the tour, they realized they had more invitations than they could ever accept. As a social media veteran with his own audience of 11,000 followers on Twitter, even Rob was surprised. “What we were pulling off completely blew me away. I think it had to do with the chemistry that we had. She puts me in my place,” he jokes.

Most amazing to Donnarie was the way people opened up to BASF during the tour – especially the skeptics. One Oklahoma grower had appeared on Rob’s podcast months before with a bone to pick with companies like BASF. “He talked about how the ‘big chemical companies’ often use the voice of farmers to gain credibility,” she says. Donnarie made it her mission to talk to him: “We just wanted to hear his story. We asked him about his family and his farm. We asked how he raised his crops.” After they left, her inbox filled with heartfelt messages of thanks from the grower and his wife. As the invitations piled up, so did their fans. The tour ended at Farm Progress, an annual outdoor show attended by 100,000 growers and 600 exhibitors showcasing the latest in farming technology. “I was there with my wife, and she kept saying, ‘We don’t walk two minutes, and someone is talking to you about the Dirt Road Tour,’” says Rob. “At the very least, we went out there and created something different that caught people’s attention.”

The tipping point
Longest continuous drive?
Asked about the long-term impact for BASF and the industry, Rob piped up. “I want to answer this one,” he insisted. “As far as the growers are concerned, it made BASF the cool Ag company. It improved your image,” he said. Competitors are noticing too: the two confirmed that copycat efforts are already underway by other companies serving the same customers. “You can’t buy this stuff,” adds Rob. For Donnarie’s part, “I just became more of a person that customers could ask.” She’s seeing returns in the number of growers looking to BASF for the right products to solve their problems. The entire experience – all 2,000 miles of it – was a career highlight for her. “It proves that even in a company with thousands and thousands of people, if you try hard enough, you can make a difference to customers,” she explains. And to employees who have an idea they’re passionate about, Donnarie says don’t give up. “There are plenty of ideas that never make it up the ladder, or your boss says, ‘maybe next year.’ But if you have an idea that you know is going to push the business forward and change how customers view BASF, you can’t let that stop you. Be pushy.”

Catch up on every episode of the #DirtRoadTour on the BASFAgproducts YouTube playlist. Follow Rob and Donnarie on Twitter! Rob: @sf28430 Donnarie: @halesbells82

Go on the road with Rob and Donnarie
Paving the way
“Punch-drunk” moment?
Deepest conversation?
From left: Donnarie Hales, BASF Product Manager for US Crop Protection; grower Donny Lassiter from Creeksville, North Carolina; and Rob Sharkey, Donnarie’s tour mate, grower and host of the Shark Farmer podcast.

I was sick of looking at videos that looked the same, no matter which company produced them, and I thought, I have some budget for customer testimonials. How funny would it be if we just drove around with dash cams and talked to growers?”
— Donnarie Hales
Product Manager for Agricultural Products

It started with a whim. Donnarie Hales was watching Lady Gaga on Carpool Karaoke. If you haven’t seen it, the concept is simple and addictively fun: celebrities get in the car with late-night TV host James Corden, turn the radio up loud and sing along. Watching it gave Donnarie, a Product Manager for Agricultural Products, an idea. What if we made our customers the celebrities? That was the seed that launched the Dirt Road Tour – Donnarie’s epic 2,000-mile trek to farms across North Carolina, Texas, Illinois and Iowa that’s changing the way growers see BASF. It was a pioneering idea that began, as they often do, with frustration. Donnarie explains: “I was sick of looking at videos that looked the same, no matter which company produced them, and I thought, I have some budget for customer testimonials. How funny would it be if we just drove around with dash cams and talked to growers?” It was a joke at first, but the idea stuck with her. She kept thinking about it. And thinking about it. Finally she ran it by her boss, who said the magic words: “I trust you.”
“We’re lost” moment?
Best driving song?
BASF employee Donnarie Hales wanted to get closer to growers. Armed with a bold idea and a deep understanding of what makes her customers tick, she took to the open road, and the #DirtRoadTour was born. BY LAURA ENDERLE

Road warriors