While farmers in total may not be on the rise, the number of purchasing options for big iron, attachments and precision services seem to be ascending exponentially. Not coincidentally, more customers are demanding proven returns on investment — often before the investment itself is made.
Looking to respond in an engaging way, some dealers are portraying value in the form of test plot investments: A field (or series of fields) under dealership control where experiments or customer showcases are conducted with equipment and services. Dealerships of all sizes and regions have taken a liking to the strategy, prompting Precision Farming Dealer editors to take a deeper dive into several successful examples.
While similarities in front-end preparation can be drawn between Redline Equipment (a full-line Case IH dealer with 12 stores in Ohio Michigan and Indiana) Butler Ag (a 16-store Challenger dealer with locations in Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota) and Central Valley Ag (A 96-store precision ag and agronomy co-op across Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas and Precision Farming Dealer’s 2018 Most Valuable Dealership), each dealership had a unique set of on-site challenges, staff training protocols and customer-based objectives, making no two test plots the same.
An Emphasis on Test Plot Transparency
When Redline Equipment conducted customer research about a year-and-a-half ago, they learned customers desired more opportunities to interact with equipment and technology prior to purchase.
Soon after, an idea was born — create a test plot for equipment to show products’ capabilities and set expectations for customers. Redline staff were attending the Fort Wayne Farm Show earlier this year, where Calvin Knotts, a precision specialist with Redline and CCA holder, joked they should use the 5-acre field they owned by their Gas City, Ind., location for a test plot.
The idea got traction in the marketing department and Redline decided to plant their test plot and update stakeholders on the progress of their plot through a media campaign.
“Growers love to come and look at hardware and equipment, but those additional features are ultimately going to be more valuable to the grower’s bottom line than any particular bolt or piece of hardware…” — Keith Byerly, Central Valley Ag
“We wanted to take the idea one step further, knowing that customers didn’t want to just stand in an equipment lot and kick tires,” says Arik Witker, precision farming manager with Redline. “They really wanted to get hands-on experience with some of the equipment that they were in the market to purchase.”
The choice came with an investment, however. “We basically laid out the whole structure before we ever started. We wanted to have a good plan, before we ever planted one seed,” Witker says.
Redline planned extensively to determine the economic costs and human power required to manage such an experiment; a collaborative effort from the precision farming team, the marketing department, vice president of equipment sales Todd Roberts and account manager Jim Moon from the Gas City location. While the only hard financial costs were for field signs and a weather station, the time investment was much more substantial. “If Redline themselves had to do everything start to finish, the manpower commitment would have been too great,” says Witker.
They planted the plot with donated seed and the same Case IH 2100 series planter they took to the Fort Wayne Farm Show. “We literally drove it off the lot, myself along with two other precision farming specialists, our marketing department and 3 interns. We set up the plot and planted it,” said Witker.
The dealership partnered with a local farmer and customer, who had rented the land previously, to fertilize, spray, maintain and harvest the plot, as well as provide equipment beyond the planter. For his work, the farmer will receive the crop grown on the plot.
Perhaps the most significant investment of time comes from Redline’s ongoing customer engagement initiative. Throughout the growing season, precision farming specialists, 2 precision ag interns and a marketing communications intern have been responsible for researching the plot and documenting the experience. Photos and video were captured and shared with iPhones, a DSLR camera, GoPro’s and a drone, which were then edited and produced by the marketing team and uploaded to Redline’s website and social media channels on a weekly basis.
“Not only are we showing customers the equipment, but also the results of the equipment,” Witker says. Other equipment tested on the plot included a Case IH 335 vertical tillage tool, a DJI Phantom Drone and a Case IH Magnum Series tractor hooked to the front of a 16-row Case IH 2150 planter, fully-equipped with Precision Planting products such as DeltaForce and vDrive.
One of the goals of the test plot is to provide a competitive edge for Redline. “If customers say they want to touch and feel the products and see them actually perform, we’re not going to a neighbor’s house or something to see how their planter performs,” Witker says. “What we’re trying to be is as transparent as we can and give them the opportunity to request and get their hands on this equipment.”
Accessibility of the plot was key. Having the plot on land that was directly in front of one of the dealership’s locations allowed for easy collaboration among staff as well as visibility to customers of the store throughout the growing season.
While there are advantages, Witker acknowledges it was a learning process as well. “We made little mistakes in our test plot such as planting at the wrong seed depth, but the whole concept here is full transparency and we weren’t going to go back and try and fix something just to make it look nice,” says Witker.
He explains that test plots aren’t new in the ag industry, but have typically been developed by aftermarket dealers or chemical and seed retailers vs. full-line equipment dealers.
Demonstrations on agronomy needs and equipment/service based solutions serve as not only valuable to farmers, but also to Butler Ag staff honing their knowledge, says product specialist Matt Miller.
A key difference between Redline’s approach and other test plots in the industry is that Redline treats their plot as a test plot vs. a “show plot.” “We don’t mention anything about seed variety or fertilizer or the chemical or herbicide that we’ve applied,” says Witker. “We’re really trying to focus on the technology.”
A season’s worth of research culminated in a customer event, which was held at the end of July. Despite nearly 2 inches of rainfall on the day of the event, Witker says Redline was prepared with a series of small tents showcasing Precision Planting and Case IH equipment for the 80-85 attendees making the trip. “There was about 60 farming operations covering parts of three different states that attended,” Witker says. “We had people traveling four or five hours to get here, but they rode for free with an account manager from the store they work with.”
The event lead to several planter sales and generated valuable feedback from customer surveys for future events, Witker says.
“These events are designed to be a transparent exercise to show customers how planters perform in different conditions. Part of my presentation at the field day was dedicated to ‘Trials and Tribulations,’ where I shared the highlights — or lowlights, if you will — of what we messed up in the planting process,” Witker says. “We want to build that foundation of trust.”
Equipment presentation was just part of the field day’s objective, with an additional emphasis on employee exposure through customer interaction. Members of Redline’s precision farming team were on-hand at each station looking to learn more about a grower’s scope of operation and provide direction.
“We wanted to take charge and give the impression that it was Redline’s field day,” Witker says. “It comes down to connecting with growers and having them understand that, ‘Hey, we are the experts in what we do and this is what we can offer you.’”
Expanding Product Lines and Employee Expertise
While other Butler Ag locations in North and South Dakota already carried Precision Planting products, the line was a new addition to their Pickrell, Neb., location, says precision product specialist Matt Miller. Looking for a way to educate employees on the functionality of the new equipment while also introducing the planting capabilities to customers in the area, Miller and the rest of the staff brought the idea of a test plot to the forefront.
Putting the plan into action, Miller says Butler Ag teamed up with a local grower open to the idea of a new planting setup. The exchange was simple: the dealership provided the farmer with a new AGCO planter, free of charge, for the entirety of spring corn planting in return for access to a 20-acre test field to conduct planting trials and record data for a customer event.
“Part of these agreements through the AGCO Crop Tour is to try and get the planter sold at the end of it, so it included working with the grower during setup. We made adjustments for how he desired it to be, which included the Precision Planting vApply flow measurement system for fertilizer application.” Miller says. “Being the closest person to the plot, I checked in periodically and set up a time-lapse camera. We were able to share with the rest of the company what was going on in the field when they weren’t able to physically go and visit it.”
“If customers say they want to touch and feel the products and see them actually perform, we’re not going to a neighbor’s house or something to see how their planter performs…” — Arik Witker, Redline Equipment
The data and imagery collected over the months of corn planting and growth served as the foundation for a customer event in August. The demonstrations, Miller explains, focused on different planter settings and included simulations that exemplified both poor and correct planting scenarios that often occur with corn.
“We looked at planting depth, closing systems and down pressure across the twenty acres of demonstration ground,” Miller says. “We showed examples of how plants will appear in good and poor environments, and what those appearance are likely to dictate for a farmer’s yield and bottom line.”
The field days reflect an agronomy-first approach being taken by Butler Ag, which Miller says comes as a response to farmers showing an increased interest in soil management plans year-round. In being ahead of the curve on the agronomy trend, Miller says Butler Ag hopes to position itself as an option for agronomic-related service provider.
“I’ve seen research on what types companies farmers trust, and most of them value agronomic advisors over equipment dealers, which are farther down the list of trusted advisors,” Miller says. “When we talk agronomy, we’re talking the nuts and bolts of farming and things that can’t really be argued, as opposed to what a green planter can do compared to a yellow or red one.
“By leading instead with seed singulation data or how a particular planter can reach the correct soil depth for optimal crop stands, we can get our foot in the door with growers we wouldn’t interact with otherwise, regardless of their preferred brand.”
While many customers come to see big iron, educating attendees on agronomic services will ultimately do more for their bottom line, says Keith Byerly, advanced cropping systems manager with Central Valley Ag.
Several sales related to test-plot equipment have been made since the customer event, Miller says, notably for the new AGCO VE Series planter and Precision Planting vApplyHD system on two separate occasions at the Pickrell location.
While he can’t tangibly connect the field days to those eventual sales, Miller is confident in the indirect value of test plots.
“Gaining the confidence to fully understand these products and convey their agronomic value starts with our experiments on the test plots and interactions at events,” Miller says. “If deals weren’t closed at the demonstrations themselves, then they were closed in the weeks that followed as customer relationships strengthened.”
Balancing Promotion with Customer Value
With several years of test plot experimentation under its belt, Central Valley Ag’s (CVA) primary objective is to create an opportunity to not only show precision hardware, but also highlight agronomic services from hybrid prescriptions to variable-rate. Originally partnering with data service provider WinField United to organize the test plots and events, Keith Byerly, advanced cropping systems manager for CVA says a standalone approach the past few years focuses on three big customer showcases. The events, which are held in May as crops are maturing and the differences in trials are obvious, aim for 100-200 growers per event at plots ranging from 12-20 acres in size.
The demonstrations are centered on a 6-row customized planter, nicknamed “Eleanora,” that is set up for downforce, in furrow applications, and Multi-Hybrid planting, Byerly adds. Planning protocol includes setting up a series of different station tents and confirming speaker presentations for a half-day gathering. The event also serves as a training opportunity for CVA staff.
“We leverage these days as a learning experience for both our precision ag sales team and agronomy sales team, but we leave a lot of untapped potential,” Byerly says. “The big focus going into next year, is to utilize our site in the fall for tillage or cover crop demonstrations and then again in the spring to try and get more of our sales team involved with getting crops into the ground.”
To improve on the customer training aspect, Byerly says the co-op hopes to re-launch a series of CVA “VIP Tours.” Originally done across several installments 5-7 years ago, the tours are designed as one-on-one sessions focused on agronomy education.
While preparation for the annual event requires scheduling close to a year out from the date, Byerly says more of the VIP Tours would need to be immediately reactionary to in-season trends, such as emergence or stand issues in the spring or disease detection in the summer.
Byerly says on of the challenges is promoting agronomic and precision services when most customers are more interested in big iron. “Being an ag retailer that’s also a precision ag dealer, the most challenging aspect for us is attempting to sell growers on supplementary features, like weed control or planting rate trials,” Byerly says.
“Growers love to come and look at hardware and equipment, but those additional features are ultimately going to be more valuable to the grower’s bottom line than any particular bolt or piece of hardware.”
The key, Byerly continues, is acknowledging that big-ticket equipment is a necessary draw in many instances for getting customers interested enough to attend the test plot events. From there, he believes supplemental services can be implemented and presented to customers.
Such an approach was exemplified earlier in 2018 during their customer event in August when a John Deere 8-row combine was brought to the plot with 360 Yield Saver brushes equipped to the machine. Laying a tarp on the ground for the combine to make compare-and-contrast runs with and without the brushes, Byerly says the customers were able to catch a front-row view of the benefits.
“We poured corn into the row units while it was running and let the growers watch how the grain was flowing through the combine and down onto the ground in the two different manners, and that was an immediate impact item with the growers,” Byerly says. “We were taking orders that day, and to date, we have sold more than 150 rows of Yield Saver chains to growers who were present for those demonstrations.”