During the 2021 Precision Farming Dealer Summit, a group of leaders from the precision ag industry gathered to participate in a panel on their experiences participating in a peer group and how that network offered them a way to vet new ideas with developing products and services and employee management.

The panel included Phil Moskal, Integrated Solutions Manager for Mid-State Equipment, Watertown, Wis.; Arthur Etheridge, Integrated Solutions Manager, Shoppa’s Farm Supply, El Campo, Texas and Karl Huebner, Integrated Solutions Manager, Hutson Inc., Murray, Ky.

Precision Farming Dealer: Peer groups aren’t a new concept in any industry. Share your perspective on the origins of this group and how it came together.

Phil Moskal: It all started with a text from a member in Minnesota showing an issue and wondering if we’d all seen it. We’d usually see each other at meetings. We just started chatting, venting about frustrations, because you can’t really vent to the parts guy or service manager, because they don’t have the same shared experience. We moved to a different platform because texting was getting cumbersome. It’s grown from there.

Arthur Etheridge: Phil got me involved. It’s nice to talk to folks who are doing the exact same thing that we are. It’s a very niche problem-solving market here and it’s great that we have this group to bounce ideas off each other, be it business or personal. 

Karl Huebner: I agree. Every dealership is pretty shallow as far as understanding full product and field knowledge. It’s the marriage of where agronomy and equipment excellence meet in the field. That’s what I was always after. 

The amount of people in an organization who can do that and be the person with the knowledge just isn’t there. Every dealership struggles with that to some extent. That’s why you hear about mainstreaming precision (see p. 16). We need a direct line of communication to people in the organization who are in the know or who can expedite solutions. When you have a personal relationship with them, they’re more likely to call you back.

Left to right:

  • Phil Moskal, Mid-State Equipment, Integrated Solutions Manager, 6-store dealer, Watertown, Wis., 11 years experience
  • Arthur Etheridge, Shoppa’s Farm Supply, Integrated Solutions Manager, 8-store deal, El Campo, Texas, 13 years experience
  • Karl Hueber, Hutson Inc., Integrated Solutions Manager, 13-store dealer, Murray, Ky., 9 years experience

Moskal: It’s about the personal connections. There are very few people in this job that you can talk with who understand what you’re doing or going through. In all precision ag, there’s the burnout factor. Part of that is because you don’t have someone to talk to about it. 

PFD: Talk about the value of having that external, trusted resource to pick their brain or share what’s going on in their area, or something to watch out for.

Etheridge: Here in the South, we typically see everything before everybody else gets a hold of it, because we harvest first. We found that Deere’s ActiveYield system in our area is very specific. In the rice market, it didn’t work and isn’t approved for rice. We had lots of issues with that and finally just turned it all off. 

I was bouncing ideas off the peer group, and they suggested doing away with it and doing a manual calibration. That fixed a lot of issues on the combine side. We have cotton as well, and there’s only a couple of other guys who have cotton. We transitioned to Deere’s generation 4 monitors on the cotton pickers, and that’s a challenge when you’re moving between one generation of displays to the next. There are quirks there and it’s nice to bounce that off these guys and see if I’m missing something simple.

Huebner: To give you some geographical perspective, Arthur doesn’t own a long sleeve shirt and Phil never takes his jacket off. I get the best of both worlds, because Arthur will run across software issues before I see it. By the time it hits Phil, we’ve pretty well got everything worked out. At the same time, there are products that he uses that are more Midwest-based. 

A lot of times, when you have to investigate a potential agronomic or machine problem, there’s a lot of noise around what really is the problem. It’s helpful to say, “Hey, we’re experiencing possibly one of these 3 things.” That’s very helpful, and it’s a product mix that you see in this group as well.

Moskal: It’s all about the communication. They may be doing something in the cotton world that we never thought about but can bring an application across into row crops or hay and forage and combine those ideas. We get a heads up on some products where software testing is or isn’t working. That’s been very helpful in diagnosing because it’s bringing everything together where we may only have 1-2 of each product. If you have 20-30 across the country, we can realize problems and put a pattern together before it may be emerging. 

PFD: How have you been able to quantify some of the value from that communication or tie it to a customer saving money or being proactive within your department?

Huebner: There is monetary value to inventory sharing. We’re all very transparent. COVID-19 is going to last longer than we want it to, unfortunately, and that’s going to put a struggle on every single business that operates in the world of technology and everything else. 

You can hardly find anything anymore. For us to be able to share openly to solve farmers’ needs is a great help. Just the expedited ability to work more efficiently instead of having a technician that’s billing time to a machine, but you’re not finding the real solution. You can sometimes call a lifeline. All of these people have been in these roles a good while, and that’s a tremendous amount of knowledge. 

It expedites what you’re able to do on an incredible level. It’s like having the top technicians in your company, all working on the same job.

Moskal: I don’t know if we can necessarily put a hard dollar number on it, but multiple times, I’ve leveraged everyone in this group to get a product I didn’t have and give me advice on service packages. We’ve all talked about services we’re providing to our customers. I’ve used some ideas from other dealerships and woven those services into my current plans. It’s definitely invaluable if I get a product that someone else has and we can share product knowledge and help advance our dealership through their trial and error. 

Etheridge: It made us more efficient as a group. We don’t just sell our tractors in our area. They go everywhere, even internationally. Sometimes, with big dealerships, it’s hard to get to the person you need to talk to in order to make a JDLink terminal transfer. That can be a 2-3 hour game of phone tag. With the dealership contact list, it saves us a lot of time.

PFD: How much of what you are taking out of this peer group is working its way into how your team operates with parts, sales and service within your dealership?

Etheridge: We’ll run into an issue and my service manager asks me to contact the group and see if anybody else has seen this. That speaks volumes to me. It may take a tech awhile to get back to you, and meanwhile, we’ve got a tech in the field and a customer screaming at him to get this thing going. So, I’ll send out a text to the group to ask if anybody’s seen this. If they have, they’ll answer quickly. Having a group like this complements the business very well.

Moskal: I’ve been taking cues on how they do training. One member has been a one-man band in his department for a couple of years. He has vast experience in mainstreaming and pushing that through. Being able to leverage that and training plans from everyone else has made my job a little easier, because I can learn from their failures and we know what they did right and what could’ve been done better.

Huebner: With training and on-boarding new employees, especially if they’re not from a farming background, it can all be pretty new to them. We bounce around some concepts about getting sales individuals ready to sell products. I’ve had some pretty extensive conversations with other group members, especially when we’re being pushed harder to move more technology and farmers are really interested in it, but there are fewer senior people in these roles and you have to force the depth of knowledge and what’s the best way to do that? 

How do you mature salespeople and technicians in these roles when they’re not coming from this background, and products are getting more complex and new employees are starting from nothing? It helps frame up how to go about it in a cleaner way. Instead of an hour-long demo, we just do a 10-minute video and 5 questions or something like that. It’s letting us expedite our ability to be effective, not only in our roles, but also in the philosophy of mainstream in an organization. 

PFD: How much interaction with dealerships from other major manufacturers or precision manufacturers do you trade advice with? 

Etheridge: We’ve got 5 Trimble dealers in my area of responsibility, one Outback dealer and one Raven dealer. We’re working with them all the time. I have really good relationships with 2 of my Trimble dealers. You can be obstinate, but that doesn’t get anybody anywhere. We all have to get along and do get along pretty well, for the most part. We can call any of the competitors anytime and they can call us. It’s not a problem. 

Moskal: I work with some of the local red dealers, but that’s more of a working relationship where we talk back and forth about how to do things or what we saw when we tried to put green on a piece of their equipment. Or, we’ve got Ag Leader on a green tractor. How do I fix that? I’d call this peer group more of a personal relationship, because we talk about work stuff, but also wives, kids, whiskey and more. I do work with outside dealers, but I get more personal value out of this peer group than any of the others I’ve been in. 

Huebner: Any company that has a bolt on file that says, “mass quantity,” we try to work with or be able to support to some extent in the field or know a contact in case we get into trouble with it. You’re starting to get more products that don’t really require much of a bolt on; they’re starting to be more seamless and not need additional things from the factory. 

I try to explain to my team so they understand our customer sells their product on a worldwide level. Their competition is all over the world. That’s how they get paid on their commodity, but when we only compete on a regional level, it’s easy for us to get blinders and view people as more competition than what they really are when really, we’re on the same team. 

What matters is these farmers get a crop in, get the crop out, make a yield and we’re keeping them in business and keeping them going. It’s a fight to keep them going and compete on a world level. That’s the trajectory that you have to have and that takes all the bias and politics out of it and puts it down to performance and the marriage of agronomy and equipment in the field. 

PFD: What advice do you have for others on why they should get involved in a peer group like this and what’s one word of caution you have on expectations?

Moskal: Learn from others who are in your position and realize that you don’t have all the answers. You can learn from a vast array of people, no matter where they’re from. The caution I have is, you’re not going to learn everything, and if you want to get a lot out of the group, you have to add to the group. Make sure you’re open and honest and be sure to contribute to the group as well. 

Huebner: Anybody should consider the opportunity to be part of a peer group. Just the ability to make you more well-rounded and the product information, things along those lines. We all know that it’s been very public knowledge, the downsizing at all these organizations and large manufacturers. 

A lot of these positions are what I would consider somewhat of a key style in training to information position. There’s going to be a lot more pressure put back on dealerships to run with the ball, to support themselves more. This is a huge resource because it gives us a little bit of cushion to support each other more as we’re starting to learn how to take on this responsibility and mature as an organization.

The other part is, developing people is hard. It’s a serious struggle and working with a piece of equipment is far easier. Working with people and developing them is very hard. You can see where bridges are being made or where others are seeing small successes. If you try to work on those, you feel like you’ve exhausted all your resources and ability to mature people. 

Then you hear an idea and think, ‘I didn’t think about it from that perspective. Let me go back and re-address that.’ A word of caution, for folks who are new in precision management: nobody knows it all. I don’t care how advanced and smart people may seem. Every time we get a call, you don’t really know what you’re getting into, and that’s OK. 

Know that having lifelines of people who have your back and having support is really what it’s always been about, because it’s not about what you know, it’s what the people around you know and the relationships you’ve built that have your back when you get in over your head. 

Etheridge: If you’re going to form a peer group like this, go have dinner after training sessions and make sure your group meshes really well. There’s also the anticipation that you’re going to get out what you put in. Nobody knows everything, but we all know a lot, and that’s a big part of this. Having this lifeline in the field to go to at any moment is great. We talk about personal stuff, too. There’s a little trash talk, too, and we blow off steam. It’s really nice to talk to somebody who’s actually dealt with the frustrations that this job can throw at you pretty hard.    

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