Spring planting poses enough daily challenges for precision farming specialists without having to wonder when, how and if they will be able to access needed hardware or call on experienced back-up to tag-team complicated service calls to get farm customers in the field.

Fortunately, the 18-member precision farming team at Stotz Equipment is ably navigating through the added seasonal uncertainties, without sacrificing quality or communication.

The Arizona-based, 25-store John Deere dealership with additional locations in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, is one of many operations that have modified store policies to adhere to social distancing recommendations.  

Changes implemented by Stotz Equipment in response to COVID-19 include, travel restrictions, employees being asked if they are not feeling well to work from home if possible and limited exposure to customers, requiring scheduled appointments with customers and permission to come onto the farm.

We caught up with 7 members of Stotz’s precision team — most which were on the road to or already in the middle of on-farm service visits — with spring planting sweeping across the region.

Layne Richins, precision farming manager, Casa Grande, Ariz. “Across the board, we're actually doing pretty well. Our precision ag revenues are up about 25%. The last 2 months have been really strong and things are looking good for April. We haven't seen anything fall off for all this craziness.

“We've sent out several different emails to all of customers and have signs posted in all the dealerships. They've moved the parts counter, so the parts employees sit behind the counter, but they've moved the table 10 feet out basically from customers. We’ve got marks on the floor, here's your 6-foot mark waiting in line, and all that good stuff. Our team doesn’t really travel right now, so I haven't been to any other store for a couple of weeks.

“On the supplier side, we’ve seen some challenges with a few shortline companies, getting parts, but overall, it’s not been terribly disruptive. We’re also doing curbside delivery for customers if they are uncomfortable coming into a store.”

Tyson Thompson, precision specialist, Nephi, Utah: “We’re about 3 weeks away from planting corn in our area and there’s a few customers planting small grains. It’s been as busy as ever, and I’m doing a lot of receiver set-ups and sending out signal activations.

“I live about an hour and 15 minutes away from the store in Nephi, so I’ve been spending even more time than usual out of the office, not that I’m there a lot this time of year, anyway. When I do go there, it’s only to pick up what I need or drop something off.

“It’s pretty locked down and customers are only allowed to go to the parts counter. They’re asked to avoid spending as much time in the store as possible and not to stick around and chat outside the store either.

“So far, it’s been more phone support, but we’re not in the heat of the battle yet, at least in my area, and as soon as the corn planters get rolling, I know I’ll be heading to more farms. It’s just going to be necessary.”

Omar Porras, precision specialist, Casa Grande, Ariz. “I’m out calibrating a sprayer today, and there’s a lot of corn and cotton getting planted now. I’m primarily running around setting up rate controllers and variable-rate seeding prescriptions, making sure they are running right. Variable-rate is newer for us in this area, so a lot of operators are needing hands-on help.

“Not much has changed for me in terms of day-to-day. Our customers are still working 7 days a week and they expect the same from us. That said, I’m being smarter when I am on farms, reminding myself about keeping a safe distance, avoiding handshakes and stuff like that. But the reality is, I am still jumping into the cab with operators.”

Jensen Thelander, precision specialist, Twin Falls, Idaho “I probably have one of the biggest areas of responsibility on the precision team, covering customers with anywhere from 100 acre farms to 12,000 acre operations. They are all pretty spread out, but I hadn’t been to my office for about 3 weeks until today, mainly because customers are in the groove with planting and things are slowing down a bit.

“My office is pretty secluded in the store, so I can get to it through the shop without having to walk through the whole store. We’re not mandated to come in, and there is signage that directs customers where to go, which is primarily to the parts counter if they need to pick something up. Parts, sales and service employees are completely separate though.

“Remote access has been huge and allowed us to get ahead of the game, preparing for planting by communicating with customers and each other.”

Shane Jones, precision specialist, American Falls, Idaho “My job is more focused on the data management side of precision, so I’m doing a lot of reporting for customers. We’ve got a lot of customers getting ready to plant potatoes, so I’m cleaning up software, field lists and guidance lines, which are incredibly important for potato planting.

“We’ve sold 100 Modular Telematics Gateways (MTGs) for 4G connections to tractors, which allows data to be sent wirelessly to the John Deere Operations Center. The remote aspect of service has been extremely valuable during all of this. Still, from 8 a.m.– 8 p.m., the phone is constantly ringing and I sometimes don’t wrap up until 11 at night.”

Clayton Eliason, precision specialist, Tremonton, Utah “I’m not supposed to head to the store in Tremonton for at least a month, which is actually OK, because I wouldn’t have been there much this time of year anyway.

“I tend to leave the house about 6 a.m. and they can be 18-hour days. I only live about 30 minutes from the store, but when I need parts, I call ahead and someone from parts just leaves what I need on the doorstep at the dealership, or if they are in the area, will drop it off and set it outside my house. It’s efficient and for the best because we don’t want to be caught talking with other people inside the store anyway.

“This is especially true for parts and service, because they don’t want them mingling. If one person gets the virus and spreads it, that could shut the whole store down. Techs aren’t allowed to work next to each other and they are rotating the parts employees to have one at home while another is working.”

Curtis Pollock, precision specialist, Buckeye, Ariz. “Our customers finished planting corn about 3 weeks ago and are just finishing up cotton. I’ve been doing a lot of bale optimizations and on the precision side, we’re getting more into the hay industry.

“Working mostly from home, I’m actually able to get a lot more paperwork done, and sales quotes. When I do get onto farms, I’m trying to be more efficient, making fewer stops and planning them. I’m not making those check-in visits as often as I would in a typical year. I know my territory and if I’m going to be in a certain area that’s 40 minutes away for a call, I will coordinate another one or two, because I probably won’t be back there for at least a week. That’s been different.”