Precision farming dealers see opportunities in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Jack Zemlicka, Technology Editor

October 11, 2012 — When traveling through Iowa, crop consultant Nathan Stein, of Labre Crop Consulting, in Manson, Iowa, is often asked to predict the future.

“Everyone wants to know, what’s next in precision farming,” he says. “’Can we variable rate each row?’ I tell them not yet. But at least they are asking the question.”

Stein says he is accustomed to the progressive mindset of customers in Iowa, because many in the state have long endorsed precision farming. A few years ago, the Iowa Department of Transportation even established its own RTK network utilizing the existing DOT facilities and Wide Area Network (WAN) communications infrastructure.

But in other parts of the country growers are asking completely different questions — or none at all — about precision farming practices.

Farmers in areas like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and western Wisconsin are not as advanced in use of precision technology, Stein says, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for savvy dealers.

“It’s an untapped market,” Stein told Precision Farming Dealer recently. “We went around and stopped at dealerships in those areas and nobody sells anything.”

Widespread dairy farming and a lack of a reliable RTK network are reasons that precision farming is lagging in parts of the Midwest, he says. Connectivity in Iowa isn’t limited by the same tree lines bordering farmland found in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, which can interrupt a signal.

But Stein — who is a Leica Geosystems dealer — says technology is improving to overcome network connection concerns and some livestock farmers, with secondary row-crop operations, are seeing value in precision tools.

Stein recently installed an RTK base station for a customer in Wisconsin, who wanted to expand his row-crop operation without abandoning his primary livestock operation.

“These guys either have time for cropping or animals, but they don’t have time for both,” Stein says. “Our customer is just picking up ground in precision technology, but he realizes that he has to do it because he spends enough time in a tractor, that he needs it.”

Others also see opportunities to branch out into areas where precision farming is still in its infancy.

Precision farming technology specialist Jeremy Wilson, with Crop IMS in Effingham, Ill., says the market in parts of Wisconsin is similar to what it was in Illinois about a decade ago.

For dealers with the ability to grow operations, those uncharted areas offer opportunities to introduce elements of precision technology, Wilson says.

“There is still a real business around selling variable rate technology (VRT) recommendations,” he says, “and selling the hardware to carry out VRT recommendations.”

Plus, Wilson says precision farming dealers from areas where technology is widely used can draw on their experience to get customers who aren’t already using it up to speed faster.

“We can talk about what we’ve been through and the mistakes we’ve made,” says Wilson, who has been a precision specialist since 1995. “Here’s what we did wrong and if you want a shorter leaning curve, here is the way we changed things to be more successful.”

The key, Stein says, will be to educate and not overwhelm growers unfamiliar with the technology.

One potential way for dealers to strike that balance is by training people locally to handle precision farming service and sales.

“I’d much rather pick out two or three guys that are young farmers like me and have them do the legwork and give them the ability to sell the equipment,” Stein says, “than just let them take on a whole dealership by themselves and let them navigate everything.”

Once they get a foothold, then it will be easier to show other growers in the area the benefits, Stein says.

“I think as dealers, we just need to do a better job of explaining the value,” he says. “Start them on a light bar and they will realize how much they need it. After that, they just keep building on it. That’s how it started in Iowa.”