Farmers’ demand for data management is fueling interest, adoption by dealers.
|IN THIS ISSUE OCT/NOV 2012|
Is Agronomic Service the Next Frontier?
When Darin Kennelly answered his office phone one afternoon this August, on the other end was a customer with a problem traditional ag equipment dealerships are increasingly being asked to solve.
The farmer wanted Kennelly, precision farming specialist with Birkey’s Farm Store, to help develop a prescription planting recommendation based on five years of data collected on the farmer’s yield monitor inside his combine, and then equip his planter to run those prescriptions.
“My comment to him was, ‘If you have your prescription map already created, I can help you get it on the monitor,’” Kennelly says. “But we don’t analyze the data and decide what population you should be putting where.”
That role has typically been reserved for an agronomist working with a grower, often through a fertilizer or seed co-op.
But ag equipment dealerships with precision farming specialists — like Kennelly — are seeing more customers ask for data analysis, beyond the traditional service and installation of precision hardware.
“It’s definitely becoming more common to have customers ask about variable rating their seed population,” Kennelly says. “Very few were really interested in that two or three years ago.”
The spike in interest from customers is prompting some traditional iron dealers with precision farming interests to consider, or in some cases add, agronomic expertise.
Last November, Decatur, Ill.-based Altorfer Ag Products, took its first step toward extending its precision ag service to include agronomic analysis when it hired Tiffany Ochs, a technology specialist with a background in agronomy.
Ochs spent four years providing precision ag advice — building planting recommendations, variable rate mapping, seeding and fertilizing and data management — with a co-op in southern Illinois.
“Right now farmers have the equipment installed and serviced and everyone wants to know the answer to ‘And then what?’” she says. “You have to be able to tell a full story in order to make precision ag work for the customer. I can’t sell it, if I can’t tell them why they are buying it.”
That is what Ochs is working to do for Altorfer customers who may eventually look for the dealership to be the “one-stop shop” for equipment, service and data management.
About one year into her official role as a technology sales representative, Ochs says the job is still a work in progress as far as fully integrating the agronomic experience she honed with the co-op, largely due to the rapidly changing landscape of precision technology.
For that reason, Altorfer is starting small — doing yield mapping and working with customers to see exactly what they want out of their precision equipment.
But Ochs and Derek Strunk, ag technology manager with Altorfer, envision a point where agronomy services will be a key asset for equipment dealerships in showing customers how they can make money from decisions based on data analysis.
“The more profitable our customers are, the more profitable we could potentially be,” Ochs says. “So if we can help them make good decisions, stay in business and make money, it’s going to benefit us as well.”
It is a slowly evolving process, but Strunk says the objective is to have Ochs or perhaps another agronomist work with potential customers on the front end to explain how they can apply yield map data to make more informed planting decisions.
“It’s still very early, but ideally, I think what we could see is an agronomist meet with a potential customer for a day and show them how the data works for them,” Strunk says. “If you have that person who knows the right buttons to push to get the sale, they are the ones who can provide the knowledge on variable rate, that another salesperson doesn’t know.”
It’s a natural progression, Kennelly says, that growers are turning to their precision farming equipment dealers for answers to data management questions, given that technology has proven to be a worthwhile investment.
Tools like GPS and row clutches have shown farmers that they can reduce input costs, Kennelly says, and dealers have benefited from that technology with customer loyalty.
“Now, there is more of an interest not so much in how can I save money, but how can I make money,” he says of growers. “I can figure out how to save $10 per acre, but if I can figure out how to increase yield by 5 bushel per acre, it’s a whole new ball game.”
Precision farming dealers appear eager to step up to the plate and provide agronomic data management solutions, especially if it means increasing profits for customers who could reinvest the money back into equipment sold by the dealership.
However, those technicians — while trained on the hardware their dealership sells — are largely novices when it comes to making informed agronomic recommendations to customers, says Kennelly.
“When I was hired seven years ago, Birkey’s wasn’t looking for someone to determine how much seed or fertilizer to put in different areas of the field,” he explains. “It wasn’t something we’ve thought about until recently.”
Precision equipment manufacturers are working to bridge that knowledge gap and arm technicians with the tools they need to eventually be able to provide data analysis to customers themselves.
Topcon Precision Agriculture has two data management programs — SGIS Pro for agronomists — and then recently launched SGIS Farm for growers. The Pro version allows agronomists to pull data from yield monitors and develop specific application plans for the grower.
SGIS Farm gives growers the opportunity to manage soil testing, harvest, application and crop sensor data from their computer.
But Rich Haynes, software support specialist with Topcon, says dealers need to be part of the agronomic equation to better understand and serve customer needs. He envisions integration of Topcon’s agronomic and farmer databases so dealers can work with users to do yield analysis and set up equations to more accurately apply fertilizer to increase yields.
“In the future, we want to have one repository for that data, where that user can sync his data with a prescription database and the dealer can possibly sell service to help users figure out how to best use that data,” Haynes says. “There could be a charge for service, but it’s just as much a way to connect businesses together.”
Topcon isn’t the only manufacturer looking to simplify data management for dealers.
At the Farm Progress Show earlier this year, Hemisphere GPS launched its new Outback Max GPS display with ConnX, a real-time data management delivery platform.
Data is collected and then stored in a virtual cloud, says Jeff Farrar, national sales director for Outback, and growers have the ability to share the data with service providers, including their dealers.
“We’re providing hardware and connectivity that would allow that ag equipment dealer to get in the game if he wants to provide agronomic services,” Farrar says. “It’s a great opportunity for that ag equipment dealer, but he also doesn’t have to do it himself.”
The Right Fit
Dealerships like Altorfer are not yet tapping their precision farming technicians to try and navigate data analysis for growers.
Two of Altorfer’s precision specialists come from a field service technician background and although they have experience selling and installing precision technology, Strunk says, he wouldn’t put them in the position of having to decipher yield map data.
“They know enough about the equipment to talk intelligently,” Strunk says. “Do I want them solving agronomy problems? Probably not. I’m not comfortable doing that either.”
The key is finding the right people who will fit into a dealership’s business model, which is easier said than done.
A combination of precision equipment knowledge and agronomic experience can be a tough find, says Robert Saik, CEO of Agri-Trend Inc. Since 1997, Agri-Trend has built a professional agricultural consulting firm that provides service to farmers across Canada and now throughout the United States. Agri-Trend helps to connect farmers with independent, unbiased Agri-Coach professionals that provide production based consulting.
More recently, Agri-Trend began placing trained agronomists within John Deere dealerships to provide both agronomic and precision farming support. During the last 18 months, Agri-Trend has placed about a dozen “Geo-Coach” and Agri-Coach technicians with dealerships in Canada and the U.S.
But as the market for agronomic services within dealerships increases, Saik says the supply of qualified people is lagging.
“Finding people who have an understanding of farming, coupled with technology integration experience and some understanding of agronomic process is tough,” he says. “We have a standing order for people and we are working very hard at finding the right people to integrate into machinery dealerships.”
Veteran agronomy consultant Harold Reetz attributes the scarcity of qualified personnel in part to the still undefined role agronomists will play within equipment dealerships.
Unlike their responsibilities with farmers to provide crop consulting and planting recommendations, agronomists will likely play larger roles within dealerships, Reetz says, to include more business development.
However, he cautions against trying to turn agronomists into “just another salesperson.”
“This person is not going to get paid for the number of pieces of equipment he or she sells,” Reetz says. “Their value will be based on the retention of customers. That kind of person is a little hard for traditional dealers to fit into the operation and advancement structure.”
Proving Their Worth
The ability of dealership staff — especially the precision ag specialist sales and service people — to provide training and support on the machinery and business side will avoid isolation for the agronomic hire, Reetz says.
Diverse experience in the ag industry is one way to ease the transition into working for an equipment dealership.
In May, Reynolds Farm Equipment in Fishers, Ind., who is working with Agri-Trend, hired veteran agronomist Mark Truster, as an Agri-Coach to provide data management support to customers, in conjunction with the dealership’s precision farming sales and service contingent.
While technicians succeeded in making precision tools work for customers, Truster says, applying the data to agronomic decisions went beyond their capabilities.
“I think it’s impossible to put someone in this role with no experience,” he says. “You really want to groom a someone for several years before he is ready to do this.”
Having spent 18 years as an independent agronomist in Indiana, as well as time in crop insurance sales and ag finance, Truster’s background prepared him for his role with Reynolds, which is to strengthen customer relationships and forge new ones by helping farmers use their collected data. Coupling his experience with the power of the Agri-Trend Network has given Truster new tools to work with and more resources to draw upon.
“This service is a tremendous sales tool for the equipment because if we can help growers make profitable decisions with this data, it’s going to be a whole lot easier to sell the technology,” he says. “Farmers don’t buy a yield monitor to have one in their combine. They buy it to generate more profit per acre.”
In his limited time with Reynolds, Truster has already had several encounters with customers asking questions that previously couldn’t be answered by their equipment dealer.
At a recent event, Truster says a Reynolds customer approached him with questions about lime application for the fall, saying his agronomist hadn’t given him a recommendation. Truster told the farmer that the application is dependant on a number of variables and he’d be willing to talk further with the grower about developing a plan for his fields.
“He never would have felt comfortable posing those questions or having that conversation with a technician,” Truster says. “But having that discussion with me made him comfortable and really opened the door to try and sell an agronomic program through the dealership.”
While farmers are starting to look to their equipment dealers for agronomic advice, most turn to a co-op or seed or fertilizer dealer for data analysis.
Some say attracting farmers loyal to their traditional agronomic service is a significant hurdle to clear in order for equipment dealers to become trusted advisors for data analysis.
“The challenge for the typical grower is they will think, ‘You are the place where I buy my tractor, can you really make a recommendation on how much potash I should put on my field?’” Kennelly says. “There is going to be that trust factor.”
Also, equipment dealerships don’t want to necessarily alienate co-ops they have developed business relationships with throughout the years, Strunk says.
That was a risk Altorfer took when it hired Ochs, especially since several of her customers followed her to the dealership.
But Strunk says there hasn’t been conflict with competitors. Altorfer is breaking into the agronomic market because of customer demand.
“Customers are coming to Tiffany and saying, ‘I want an independent look at my recommendations,’” he says. “That way they can go shop two or three co-ops and they don’t feel like one is making a recommendation just to sell more fertilizer.”
Independence will be a key selling point for dealerships that tap into agronomy services, Truster says.
Although he joined Reynolds as an employee because it was a good fit, Truster says other dealerships may simply contract with agronomy service providers to offer third-party analysis and recommendations for customers.
“I think a lot of alliances will be built between dealers and existing independent consultants because those guys are out there,” Truster says. “The benefit for customers will be confidence that they are getting a recommendation compatible with their goals, not just something kicked out of a computer.”
The initiative by dealers to add agronomic services also shows customers that they are ready to take the next step in providing precision technology service, Saik says.
While it is relatively early in the game to quantify the bottom-line value dealerships are getting from agronomy services, Saik says those who are on the forefront will be prepared when the next wave of precision technology hits the market.
“Farmers see the dealership as stepping up and providing leadership,” Saik says. “They buy their equipment there, but won’t have to go somewhere else to see how to piece it together and know what to do with the data.”
Kennelly, who is still pondering an approach to incorporate agronomic service at Birkey’s, says the ability to offer a comprehensive data management package to customers is attractive.
But it’s not something that is going to happen overnight.
“It’s a big jump for a lot of dealers selling iron and unaccustomed to working with the agronomic side of precision,” Kennelly says. “But there is a benefit if it’s done right to increase customer reliance on their dealer and bring new people in the door.”