Kern Machinery has not been satisfied to merely distribute farm machinery to its customer base. With the wide diversity of crops — from almonds and pistachios to table grapes and pomegranates — grown at the south end of California’s Central Valley, many of its customers’ challenges are unique to the region and not necessarily economically feasible for its major supplier to address.
This has resulted in the 7-store John Deere dealer group taking on the role of product developer for special agricultural applications. This function not only differentiates Kern from other farm equipment dealers, it also serves to intimately bond the business with that of its customers and its specialty equipment suppliers.
As Larry Sitzman, general sales manager, says, “We find customer problems and then we go find solutions. I don’t want their problems ignored.”
Working through the sales department, Kern Machinery determines specific issues confronting its customers and brings “the problem to the table, to the vendor of choice who has the capability to help us solve it,” explains Sitzman. “Then we work with them in developing the product that meets the customer’s specific need.”
The dealership group has a long track record for solving customer problems with innovative products. Examples include specialized tractor cabs for vineyard and orchard use, specialized sprayers, equipment for harvesting almonds and pistachio nuts, tree toppers for orchards and, soon to be introduced, new precision and yield data technologies.
Arbor Grape Cab
According to Sitzman, changing crop practices often result in the need for new or modified equipment. “Permanent crops grow in, what we call, an envelope. For example nut trees grow together, you’ve got a canopy above you and they want the tractor to be low and wide to fit through the envelope. Vineyards for wine grapes used to be open. You could use virtually any kind of tractor in there.”
But as the market shifted more toward fresh market table grapes, equipment needs also changed. “In these vineyards, they build arbors where the plant grows up through the arbor and you have just a little bit of daylight up on top of the plant. This doesn’t leave much area for the tractor to get through. Like I said, it’s like an envelope. The growers didn’t ask us what size tractor would work for what they were doing. Basically, they said, ‘Build a tractor to fit my envelope.’”
Then they wanted a cab for the narrow tractor Deere was building. “Deere wouldn’t do it because there wasn’t enough volume. So Clayton [Camp, president and co-owner] said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ So we worked with our vendor to design the cabs, then they made them for us. I think we’re on our third generation of cab now. And there’ll be more to come because there’s going to be a model change.”
Sprayer sales also represent a significant revenue stream for Kern Machinery and represent another area of product development where the dealership has helped modify existing equipment or develop new products to match customers’ special needs.
One example, Sitzman says, is Air-O-Fan, which builds sprayers for almonds, pistachios and grapes. “They don’t build everything, but they’ve worked with us to tweak their machines to our horsepower needs and to the size of the plant canopies.”
Typically, he says, with engine-drive sprayers used in almonds, “We always felt we needed all the fan power we could get but then realized we don’t. We discovered that for good application we needed to reduce the amount of windage for customers who wanted to stay with traditional air fans. And now that we have a 125 horsepower orchard tractor that has a low profile, we can put a PTO sprayer on and do pretty much the same thing. So we had Air-O-Fan build us a special sprayer that would match that big John Deere orchard tractor.”
Currently, Kern Machinery is working closely with Progressive Ag, which builds electrostatic sprayers, on a new concept for a tower sprayer. “A significant problem that farmers have is getting the right distribution of material in the canopy. A typical air blast unit sprays from the ground up through the tree. We found that doesn’t work most effectively,” Sitzman says.
He explains that electrostatic spraying is the best approach for trees and vertical hedges that are found in almonds and pistachios because it utilizes as much as 30-40% less chemical. “The standard approach of blowing the chemical up through the tree wasn’t efficient because the chemical was going through the canopy too fast and didn’t have time to stick.”
Together with its supplier, Kern Machinery was able to come up with a tower sprayer that blows chemical from the ground up and top down through the canopy. “Tests proved this was the most effective distribution of material into the canopy because it had enough time to attract and attach to the leaf or a nut surface and not blow out,” explains Sitzman.
As a side note, Sitzman says, “We realized this tower sprayer, with a few modifications, is also an excellent solar panel washer. So we’re having a model built for that application. It’s interesting that sometimes solutions often are so close, but we just don’t see them!”
Measuring Yield in Permanent Crops
Always “forward thinking, forward planning,” Sitzman says the newest product development project underway is yield measurement. “We’re working on measuring the yield for almonds.”
President Clayton Camp says yield data technologies for nut harvesting are lacking commercially. “We’ve been working with two companies on a method to measure yield data and overlay irrigation and other data to try to help the grower affect his yield,” he says. “We’re going to have to produce more crop with less acres because there’s going to be less water in the future.
“A lot of these farmers are way ahead of us. We’re not leading the pack here. California ag has been using precision for decades, so we are trying to fit in those places or those niches that we can help with, like machinery with yield data equipment on it that is able to gather the data.”
The dealership’s Integrated Solutions department is busy with installations and testing, but has tapped interns and staff from Fresno State. “It all takes so much time, but we’re driving some of that innovation to get it to a reliable state,” Camp says. “It may or may not be a profit center down the road, we don’t know yet. But it’s going to tie us to the customer and they’re going to use John Deere tractors to do it. And these opportunities and discussions get you into the customer’s board room — it’s wonderful.”