Pictured Above: With a deep pool of precision knowledge to draw from, Van Wall Equipment’s Integrated Solutions team, including from left to right, Eric Mensen, Integrated Solutions Specialist; Scott Meldrum, Integrated Solutions Manager; Chris Lander, Application Product Specialist; and Brian Titus, Integrated Solutions Specialist, earned the 2021 Precision Farming Dealer Most Valuable Dealership.
The 2021 recipient of Precision Farming Dealer’s 9th annual Most Valuable Dealership is Van Wall Equipment, based in Perry, Iowa.
In total, 14 U.S. and Canadian dealerships including large and small farm equipment dealership groups with precision departments, independent precision operations and co-ops were nominated by their farm customers, precision equipment suppliers and their own employees.
Evaluated criteria included precision farming sales growth and diversity, along with how each nominee is generating revenue from hardware, software and precision service. Less quantifiable elements that define the best precision farming dealership, such as employee training, performance standards, innovation, sustainability and community involvement were also considered.
Previous recipients showcased the diversity of dealerships carving out a successful niche in precision farming, and 2021 highlighted the third large ag equipment dealership in Van Wall Equipment, and the second dealership to also be recognized as our sister publication Farm Equipment’s Dealership of the Year (2016).
Fully embracing a solutions-driven approach to accelerating precision growth within the 31-store John Deere dealership, owner Don Van Houweling sums up the significance of servicing nearly 6 million acres of productive agricultural ground for customers with one sentence.
“From the very top down, it has been about solutions, driven by precision data…” – Don Van Houweling
“It’s a big responsibility and with it comes a lot of accountability,” he says. “We need to be leaders in precision because the only way our customers will continue to be successful and sustainable is they need to be able to make decisions that are driven by accurate,
Van Houweling adds that as he anticipated data becoming the driver of precision growth, he realized it needed to be the focal point of the whole organization. This approach is evident throughout the dealership’s precision structure, rooted in its Solutions 360 platform which combines the foundational value of precision hardware and data-driven agronomic service, with the added layer of risk management through the dealership’s internal crop insurance business.
“From the very top down, it has been about solutions, driven by precision data,” Van Houweling says. “Our success and our customers’ success is rooted in us not only taking data, but making sure it’s accurate, it gets applied and we have the right equipment to carry out that application.”
Nominate a Dealership for the 2022 MVD
It’s never too early to nominate candidates for next year’s Precision Farming Dealer Most Valuable Dealership program. We’re inviting you to participate by submitting entries for precision farming dealers and please nominate all the dealers you feel are worthy of consideration by our judges.
There is no limit to the number of nominations you can submit, and if you prefer, we will not reveal to the dealers who nominated them for this honor.
Open to all precision farming dealers in the U.S. and Canada, Precision Farming Dealer will again be recognizing the organization that demonstrates the best in sales, service and support of precision farming technology.
Simply complete the nomination form at www.PrecisionFarmingDealer.com
to be considered for this recognition in 2022. Or email nominations to Jack Zemlicka at firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope that you’ll choose to participate in this program and help showcase the finest precision farming dealers in our industry!
Revolving Around Customer-Driven Solutions with Comprehensive Precision Proficiency
Van Wall Equipment’s Solutions 360 platform delivers a diverse, progressive start-to-finish platform that covers equipment, technology, agronomy and risk management.
More numbers than ever are getting crunched from farmers’ fields with the expectation that the analysis will translate to smarter decision making.
But even as more farm equipment dealerships equip their existing precision farming teams to provide broader, but more specialized support, there is a divide in the companies that have the infrastructure to execute a comprehensive customer platform and those that are still adapting.
With an increasingly diverse portfolio that includes its Solutions 360 platform, a data-driven agronomy arm and an internal crop insurance business, Van Wall Equipment is positioned as a progressive dealership — rich in versatility and deep in precision acumen.
Van Wall Equipment
Ag Locations: 25 ag locations in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska (Acquired 6 locations of Horizon Equipment in December 2020).
Employees: 550. This includes 13 precision employees, distributed throughout the dealership’s production ag locations.
Precision Lines Carried/Used:
John Deere, Raven, Nitro-Lert, Reichhardt
Year-over-Year Precision Sales Breakdown (Fiscal Year)
Includes new and used hardware as well as Integrated Solutions Department
Year-over-year Precision Service Sales (Fiscal Year):
Includes only Integrated Solutions department service labor
The 25 ag-store John Deere dealership, based in Perry, Iowa, has made a top-down investment in its 13-person precision team, and understands the value its precision business will increasingly have in keeping customers in the black.
“Everything has to be tied back to increasing a grower’s margin per acre,” says Scott Meldrum, Integrated Solutions manager. “If every conversation about equipment, technology or agronomy doesn’t focus on margin per acre, then the grower will not be getting the full benefit from the product.”
With the recent acquisition of 6 stores, Van Wall Equipment has grown to 25 ag locations. A key measurement of success for the Integrated Solutions team is acres of opportunity and setting a goal of achieving 45% engaged acres in each of the 35 Iowa counties they serve.
“It’s a simple principle that if the growers in our area are successful and profitable, then they will be more likely to come spend money on our goods and services,” Meldrum adds. “As long as we understand how to continue to help them be better.”
With Van Wall’s precision service revenue growing 5% each of the last 3 years to a high of 85% in 2020, and a nearly 25% increase in customer acreage engaged in precision services during that same time period, the dealership has successfully shifted the paradigm of where the majority of money is made from ag technology sales.
“Everything we do starts with the question, ‘Is it right for that customer?’ Whether it’s making the task easier, generating revenue or reducing costs, it’s got to fit in there somewhere,”
Everything flows through the precision department’s 5 principles that guide every conversation their team has with customers — data integrity, data management, equipment optimization, agronomic recommendations and risk management.
Meldrum, joined by fellow precision staples Chris Lander, application product specialist, and Brian Titus, Integrated Solutions specialist, have more than 30 years of experience among them within Van Wall.
Such an abundance of ag tech experience is a rarity for most dealerships, but Van Wall has leveraged theirs well, retaining talent and also developing it, with more than a third of their 15-person precision team having a least 5 years of experience with the dealership.
“If every conversation about equipment, technology or agronomy doesn’t focus on margin per acre, then the grower will not be getting the full benefit from the product…” –Scott Meldrum
The three veterans joined Precision Farming Dealer for a deeper look into Van Wall’s precision priorities, how the dealership trains and retains precision talent and what the next steps for the business will be in 5 years.
Precision Farming Dealer: How do you define the core precision mission of Van Wall, thinking about it as it relates to customers, employees and revenue objectives?
Meldrum: A challenge any precision department faces is accountability and profitability. For us, we limit our core focus to 3 major goals throughout the year to keep our team focused. The first is billable hours. Documenting services we’re providing for a grower, keeping their technology and equipment up-to-date, fixing things in the field.
I set an individual goal with each specialist based on the area they cover. Typically, it’s in the range of 400 billable hours per year, but that can be a combination of annual service agreements and hourly services, which on the precision side we charge $135 per hour.
Solutions 360: A Well-Rounded Approach to Customer Service
Van Wall Equipment’s Solutions 360 platform evaluates 5 specific areas of a grower’s operation — data integrity, data management, equipment optimization, agronomic recommendations and risk management.
“These 5 principals guide every conversation with a grower to allow the dealership to help provide a product or service that will help increase a grower’s margin per acre,” says Integrated Solutions Manager Scott Meldrum.
More specifically, the Integrated Solutions department offers a comprehensive precision support package that includes data management on the John Deere Operations Center, display setup for all operations, AMS software updates twice annually and unlimited AMS infield support.
A second prong of the Solutions 360 platform includes Van Wall’s agronomic services, a solution it launched in 2012. The program centers around zone management or managing zones as fields within fields.
“We meet with growers and discuss their goals and formulate a plan for each field that takes into account their current equipment, technology and realistic yield goals,” Meldrum says. “Zones are then established using several years of satellite imagery. These zones are what all management decisions are based off of going forward.”
Each zone is assigned a grower-approved yield goal and a seeding and fertilizer plan is established for each zone. Then all data is filtered back through the Operations Center and then to a third party software, where it is analyzed and reported back to the grower.
A third arm is the dealership’s crop insurance business, which flows through the precision department. This falls under the risk management side of the Solutions 360 platform.
“We’ve had a lot of questions about why is a John Deere equipment dealer in the crop insurance arena?” Meldrum admits. “Basically, we want customers to utilize those precision tools that they’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars to add or have in their equipment to capture data.
“Let’s make that information live instead of just printing out a nice yield map at the end of the year. We’re able to work with the grower to pay insurance premiums only based on what they actually plant. Not on what a government map says.”
In some cases, Meldrum says they’ve saved customers significant money because they are reducing the acres they’re insuring because they are being insured accurately.
“Instead of just using a quick aerial image, we are only insuring those actual acres planted,” he says.
Our Van Wall base precision support package includes data management on the John Deere Operations Center, display setup for all operations, AMS software updates twice annually, and unlimited AMS in-field support.
The base package starts at $1,000 per year and includes all of the above, but is limited to 4 hours annually of in-field support. We also provide an AMS quality check with every piece of equipment sold to assure buyers that the machine will perform the desired precision functions prior to leaving the dealership.
We had north of 200 customers enrolled in our annual precision service packages in 2020 and I’m hoping to increase that to 300 in the coming year, but we’ve annually seen a retention rate of about 85-90%.
I’ll meet with our team on a quarterly basis to discuss their progress and see who might be struggling, before it’s too late. Currently our specialists record their billable time on a Google spreadsheet and then our support staff will bill the customer. We’re in the process of switching to using the AgriSync app to record service calls and then bill from the app.
This will eliminate the redundant input of data into the spreadsheet, since everything on the app can be talk-to-text and also machine information can be pulled directly from the JDLink system.
The second annual goal we set in the department is equipment sales — displays and receivers — and the third focal point is an engaged acre goal. We estimated that in Iowa, we’ve only capitalized on about 53% of our opportunity for engaged acres. Three years ago, we were only at about 30%, so the ascent has been significant. We can get actual numbers, run reports and track progress, which is critical to knowing what opportunity acres we have available.
We set a percentage goal for each of the 35 counties in Iowa we’re servicing. Our magic number is that 40-45% range for each of those counties and once we achieve that goal, we’ll drill down to an individual grower level on the agronomy side to see how much they are actually utilizing the data and it’s not just a filing cabinet of information.
Wrapping every precision conversation with a customer around how to improve margin per acre is a priority for Van Wall Equipment’s Integrated Solutions team. The dealership’s Solutions 360 approach targets 5 specific areas of a customer’s operation — data integrity, data management, equipment optimization, agronomic recommendations and risk management.
Our standard agronomic package runs $6-7 per acre and that includes soil sampling, recommendations and minimal scouting. On average, we see customers enroll 500–3,000 acres in our agronomic service program, and in most cases, it’s going to be a smaller number of “prove it” acres so we can show the value.
Currently, we’ve got about 15,000 total acres enrolled in our agronomic program and one agronomist who covers those. But we’re at about a 98% retention rate annually and in the neighborhood of 35-40% margin on those services. Once we get into that 20,000-acre range, we’ll explore adding to that department to maintain that revenue.
Lander: It’s also about lowering that customer’s risk and improving their margin per acre. If that’s optimizing machinery or helping with getting data moved from the machine to a data platform, that’s really important to help them make those decisions.
PFD: Having chemistry and a defined culture is important. But that’s not always easy, particularly with turnover and training and trying to limit that burnout factor. How do you manage that within the precision team and maintain the stability and productivity of the department?
Lander: Long hours are part of the job, but they don’t last forever. Sometimes, especially in the application side, the cooperatives are running well past 10:00 p.m. But we just stay focused and help the new hires out. That’s what they need.
Knowing that when we get done helping a customer, they appreciate it. They look forward to us helping them the next time. Dedication, hard work, that’s what’s instilled in us from the executive level, all the way down.
Titus: From a day-to-day perspective, it’s those little wins that are nice. I feel that incrementally, we accomplish those larger goals Scott was talking about throughout the year. But it’s the little wins across daily activities that really makes the difference.
Meldrum: The unique thing about Van Wall is we’ve got continuity. If we look at the 3 of us, we’ve all been here for 10 plus years. That’s unheard of in the precision industry. But at least half of our 11 other specialists have been here at least 3 years.
That allows the newer employees to have resources in those of us who have seen it and done it. If they are concerned about burnout during the busy times of year, we can relate and help them understand why I’m taking these calls in late April or early May at 10:00 p.m. I’m out there well after dark and the newer hires see me doing it. That’s the work hard mentality and we lead by example.
When we were only 5 stores, we were fairly compact in our area of responsibility. We’re at 25 now. It’s 200 plus miles from one location to the farthest. On average, one specialist covers two locations. The scope of their responsibilities depends on the capabilities of the service department at that location and the specialist’s knowledge level.
A seasoned specialist will handle anything from data management all the way to in-depth electrical troubleshooting to precision hydraulic performance. A newer specialist focuses on data management and core precision products at the start of their career and then progresses as they gain experience through time on the job and training.
Each one of our specialists is a part of two teams at the dealership. They’re part of the Integrated Solutions team which is spread out across the entire AOR. Then they’re also part of that location team. The location team, they can do things a little more frequently. Store meetings, store lunches, things like that. It’s a little more of an event when we bring the whole IS team together.
What Suppliers Say About Van Wall Equipment…
Sales is all about building relationships and flexibility, which are two things Van Wall Equipment does very well, according to suppliers that work with the dealership. Many of those professional relationships have been in place for years, building a firm foundation for the dealership to grow and better serve their customers with a flexible, customer-oriented approach.
Nate Sutton, territory manager with Eldon Stutsman Inc., supplies Raven products to Van Wall. The dealership was one of the first companies to put rate control on a manure spreader, Sutton acknowledges.
Raven rate control modules are retrofitted to manure spreaders, sprayers, anhydrous bars and more and are integrated to the John Deere 4600 monitors through ISOBUS.
“They have a support team behind their products to ensure that the customer is happy and implementation of the product is successful,” Sutton says. “Not everyone does that in the large implement dealership world today.”
Van Wall also has the distinction of many of their precision ag technicians having long tenure with the dealership, according to Eric Randolph, chief operating officer with Ag Express Electronics.
“A lot of times, an OEM solution isn’t always the best or only solution that’s best for a customer,” says Randolph. “Van Wall has a flexibility with their services that they provide to their customers, so they’re open to helping the customer, no matter what the needs are.”
The dealership has also come to Ag Express with older or used equipment and worked with them to install new technology on the older model machinery, Randolph says. Planter applications and solutions are another area where Van Wall has been leading the way.
“We’ve worked on prototyping for wiring harnesses, a niche market that they were developing a product for,” Randolph says. “We’ve worked with them on a lot of custom projects, since they’re always looking for new markets to get into.”
Selling and supporting technology is where Van Wall really shines, says Lee Madden, John Deere field team representative.
“They do a good job of selling the total solution,” Madden says. “Not only do they sell the technology and optimize the technology and equipment, but they offer a 360 solution that includes anything the grower needs, from crop insurance, providing agronomy services, data management services, utilizing the data created by the equipment, and using that data to provide solutions
“Customers can pick and choose which services meet their needs, and Van Wall provides that flexibility.”
The morale of the IS team tends to be a little higher, because the solution-driven aspect of it leads to rewarding outcomes. When we’re dealing with a grower, we can really see the reward and the genuine appreciation on that grower’s face. It really helps us feel like we’re making a difference.
PFD: Problem-solving is required on a daily basis for precision specialists. But creative thinking and pulling opportunity from adversity are also qualities of a successful team. How have you moved the needle with innovation at Van Wall?
Meldrum: We developed the first precision sprayer for the golf industry 6 years ago by taking application controls from the ag industry and applying them to a golf sprayer. Deere has since brought that design in-house and offers it as a factory installed option, based on what we came up with.
Titus: After we worked with Iowa State University on developing the first turf sprayer, we took the idea and spread it across the country and targeted golf customers, especially on the east coast, who wanted to take the dive into machine control for the first time.
That led us to utilize AutoTrac, individual nozzle control and boom height control on those systems and a few years later we expanded to allow for share mapping for any customer that wanted multiple sprayers on their operation.
It was a great revenue stream for us and now we can house the information in Operations Center a then create reports to show what was sprayed and how it was sprayed throughout the growing season.
Today we are offering retrofit kits starting at $30,000, and Deere came out with its own version of the Advanced Turf Sprayer.
Another opportunity we have capitalized on is our crop insurance business.
With so much of our revenue coming through equipment sales, we realized that protecting grain from a row-crop operation is a natural extension.
We had members of the IS team get licensed as crop insurance agents and operate that entity under the Van Wall Risk Protection umbrella. Right away we saw a strong correlation in planting and harvest data being the same information needed for acreage and production reports for crop insurance.
Check Out the 2021 MVD Video Series Online!
Visit www.PrecisionFarmingDealer.com watch exclusive interviews with members of the Van Wall Equipment precision team. Filmed at the dealership’s locations in Iowa, these videos capture the innovative strategies and proven practices utilized by the 2021 Most Valuable Dealership. The 2021 MVD video series is sponsored by Reichhardt Electronic Innovations.
In our initial year of selling crop insurance, the government changed the rule in order for precision record keeping to be used solely for crop record reporting. So with our background in precision farming, it gave us a leg up on the competition that really drove customer sales.
We were able to build trust with the customers to start collecting planting acreage to be more accurate as well as had the opportunity to have more accurate production records. The claims process was also sped up considerably because we can reduce what was normally a traditional claim time turnaround of a day and shrink it down to around 10 minutes.
The data that is used by the precision technology has eliminated a lot of headaches within the business. It is now no longer needed to do manual data entry, and it’ll also eliminate a lot of the human error.
And it’s also one way to allow the customer to utilize their investment in precision ag technology and to spread it out across the year.
PFD: Thinking 5 years down the road for each of you, what is the one primary change you see as critical to growing the precision department?
Titus: I really think as time progresses, were not going to be bolting on equipment. We’re going to turn into optimizers. We’re going to have to understand equipment from the top down and understand how each piece works, like the planter for instance.
Obviously it’s seed spacing singulation, depth control, but we’re going to have to really understand just the technology, but the whole entire system and how to optimize it. It comes back to that margin per acre responsibility we have to our customers.
Lander: It’s the data. It’s not going to be something on the equipment. As far as diagnosing the equipment, we’re going to be turning that more over to the shop. Data in general is where our focus is going to go and things like making sure we have as many trips across the field documented as we can.
We could be missing that tillage pass and that could explain a lot of what happened that year as far as yield goes, so I see us needing to be more hands-on with the data.
Meldrum: It’s going to be telematics, and especially as it pertains to machine health and machine service where we have expert alerts, which allow us to use machine information and health to predict with relative certainty, when a failure occur and address it early.
It’s also off-boarding the data, like Chris says. Let’s get it somewhere and get it somewhere in a hurry so we can make fast decisions. Remote service will be increasingly important and optimizing them from a distance.
I see the parts department being able to utilize telematics in some way, shape or form. The service department is obviously the next one that’s really going to benefit from it. The IS team is already heading down that road.