I step carefully out of the passenger side of our rental car and into the humid 80-degree weather. We’re at Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners’ St. Charles, Mo., location, one of their 27 John Deere stores across Missouri and Illinois.
I check to make sure there’s no glass on the back of my shirt, since our car was broken into around 4 a.m., resulting in shattered glass all over the seats. Thankfully, Farm Equipment Executive Editor Kim Schmidt and I are both unscathed by the incident (aside from our annoyance at the situation), and we meet Lee Ann Sydenstricker, vice president of marketing at Sydenstricker Nobbe, in the parking lot. Though it feels like a rough start to the day, Lee Ann leads us into the store’s conference room, where we sit down with CEO Ted Briscoe and the man we drove 8 hours for me to see: Senior Product Specialist John Crumbaugh.
In addition to his official title, John is Sydenstricker Nobbe’s “combine specialist” when it comes to precision technology. In John’s eyes, that means selling technology, pure and simple.
“I also help sell more actual combines, but there’s not as much opportunity there,” he says. “I help our dealership and our customers get more out of the combines we’re selling, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. It’s easy to turn on the technology, and it’s easy to demonstrate that it really solves problems for the customer.”
In many situations, this means John is on-site with customers during demos, explaining the value the technology will bring to their operation and answering questions. Another aspect of his role comes in the form of education. John explains to me that tomorrow morning, he’ll be hosting an hour-long clinic with technicians, doing a combine walk-around and explaining how processes can be improved.
“I’m going to suggest certain changes to our setup process that will improve our customers’ experience and explain things like why your billable hour performance will increase with certain changes, for example,” he says. “And we’re going to use the John Deere GoHarvest app and talk about how it can review the settings needed for the crop you’re going into.”
8:45 a.m. I sit and chat with Ted and John as Kim and I unpack our gear and get ready for the day ahead. They tell us about a larger, influential customer nearby they’re hoping to convert to all Deere equipment (Ted says this farmer would have a blue check mark by his name if he was on Twitter), in this case bringing a full crop cycle’s worth of equipment to the farm and demoing it on-site.
“It was the first time that we took an entire production season’s worth of equipment to a customer’s place,” says John. “Historically, we try to bring them into a dealership. You clean the shop for three days, shut down for a day, give the customer a nice meal and hope they buy something.
Combine Specialist John Crumbaugh and I stop outside Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners’ Moscow Mills, Mo., location to see how John Deere’s GoHarvest app can measure a combine’s performance.
“In this case, we took the equipment to them and said, ‘Here are the four seasons, where you would use this equipment and here are the wholistic solutions we’re proposing,’” says John.
Ted adds the deciding factor for customers like these is usually precision technology, since “equipment is a commodity to them. If these guys are going to convert, it will be through precision technology, through your operations center. They don’t want us to tell them why our combine or our sprayers are better, it means nothing to them.”
John jokes that, as part of his position involves furthering the mainstreaming of precision knowledge at the dealership, he hopes to make himself replaceable by breaking down his ‘silo’ of knowledge and sharing it with everyone. I tell him I’ll be sure to write down his ambition to be useless, and he laughs.
9:30 a.m. After talking through our plan for the day, John and I hit the road to drive to Sydenstricker Nobbe’s Moscow Mills, Mo., location, in order to both get better photos with some of the dealership’s remaining equipment and check out their ecommerce store. The industry-wide equipment shortage is evident as we leave the St. Charles location: two compact Deere tractors hold up a sign in the front of the parking lot beside a series of Deere skidsteers, but no ag equipment is to be seen anywhere else on the lot.
John goes over his career with me, starting with managing pickle harvesting for Hartung Brothers Inc. in Madison, Wis., in 2006, fresh out of Western Illinois University where he graduated with an Ag Mechanization and Ag Economics degree. “If you had a Vlasic or Claussen pickle between 2006 and 2010, there’s a one in three chance that my crew harvested it,” he says.
In 2010, John moved on to Deere working in product development for combines, which he describes as “traveling all over the world breaking combines.” In fact, he was testing the X9 combine back in 2010. Then in 2012 John moved to product support, where he analyzed technical “opportunities” on Deere’s 6 series tractors.
After some time working with dealers in the Northwest, John worked with Deere to develop a product specialist program, which he did for two years as their senior combine specialist before Ted noticed him at an event, pulled him aside to talk and ultimately “stole” him from Deere.
John tells me corn and soybeans are the primary commodities in the area, and he estimates around 30% of the producers who raise soybeans also produce wheat double cropped with soybeans. “We’re far enough south that we can double crop wheat,” he says. “We have a diverse dealership with about 50% of our business supporting large ag and the remainder being made up equally of residential turf, small ag hay and cattle producers.”
9:45 a.m. During our drive John makes a call to a rep at Farmobile, explaining to me beforehand that they’re close to working out a deal to use Farmobile’s software to do productivity mapping on combines.
Why Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners Developed Its Own Precision ‘Specialist’ Program
John Crumbaugh is Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners’ resident “combine specialist” and describes his role as “trying to help our dealership and our customers get more out of the combines we’re selling.” CEO Ted Briscoe explains why the dealership has moved toward the “specialist” format as a way to elevate the precision knowledge of all the dealership’s staff.
“About three years ago, the big thing became mainstreaming your precision knowledge,” he says. “You don’t want this silo of precision experts that stand above the rest of the staff. You want to make sure your service techs, all your sales organization and even your parts employees have that precision knowledge so they don’t have to lean on the ‘experts’ for a crutch.
“I came into this organization in the early thrust of mainstreaming. We set up training programs in three different levels of knowledge people need to have and defined a base level everybody had to have. Unfortunately, I’ve realized that it’s not something you do over a couple of quarters or even a couple of years.”
What the company ultimately decided, says Briscoe, was to craft a program to run parallel to the mainstreaming process, through which the dealership can have a core group of precision experts with two key focuses: changing the narrative on precision over the next 3-5 years from focusing on pricing to the value the technology brings and consolidating product knowledge via “specialists” in certain categories of equipment. Crumbaugh’s role and day-to-day responsibilities fall under the second focus.
Briscoe describes Crumbaugh and the dealership’s other planter and service specialists as the “tip of the spear” to lead the company where it needs to go as it works through the process of mainstreaming precision knowledge among its staff.
“Historically when we’ve demoed combines, I’ve struggled to find someone who provides analysis of throughput capacity and productivity and fuel consumption,” he says. “The John Deere Operations Center is close, but it doesn’t provide it quite yet. That would be the logical thing. It would flow into the cloud, and the producer would know exactly how they did, with the result either being: coach the operator or buy a different machine.”
John and the Farmobile rep agree to a time when he can come out to demo some products for John. They discuss which combines and yield monitors the software is best suited for, with John adding that the target group is combines less than 8 years old.
One benefit explained by the rep, who adds he’s worked with two other OEMs and at least 6 other dealerships on this same type of project, is that Farmobile becomes an unbiased third-party source of information when selling farmers on what a combine can do.
“You want to be able to say, ‘This is the source, and these are the numbers,’” he says through John’s truck’s speakers. “Because everyone drinks their own Kool-Aid. The fact is that sometimes numbers are going to look weird or even look bad, but at the end of the day, numbers are numbers.”
John asks the rep to explain the most important value the software has brought to the dealers they’ve worked with before, to which the rep answers that it’s a cheap expense in order to prove the value of equipment to customers. He adds that it goes against the grain of the oldschool salesperson, who he characterizes as selling by saying, “This combine is great. Here’s a warranty.” He and John agree that, in order to go after new customers, the approach dealers use will need to change and become more data-focused.
10:30 a.m. We arrive at the Ecommerce warehouse of Sydenstricker Nobbe’s Moscow Mills, Mo., location and step into the office of its manager, Shawn Miederhoff. Shawn gives us a brief tour and explains what he does.
“I go over what has sold in the last 24 hours and track our reordering,” he says. “We’re constantly looking at new products, looking at our competition to see what opportunities we’re missing out on.”
Shawn’s location moves 800-1000 packages a day, six days a week. He says since the ecommerce location first opened two years ago, the focus of the location has always been the lawn & garden segment and included retail items like toys and collectibles. However, as of late, the ag side of the business has been picking up.
11:10 a.m. John and I head over to a parked combine outside the main building of the Moscow Mills location so he can show me the John Deere GoHarvest app, a tool he’s pushing Sydenstricker Nobbe’s techs to utilize more when working on combines.
“Before the combine hits the field, I like to use the app to verify the outside settings of the combine and the inside settings are correct,” he says. “Once the combine is in the field running, you can use the app to measure how much grain loss you have, which is the key performance measure. If you get stumped, it also has some suggestions on how to improve settings. The other big thing on the app that I always stress is the power shut down procedure. The only way to determine any combine’s true performance, in terms of threshing, separating and cleaning, is to load it up full of product and then stop everything mid-process. This allows you to get a snapshot of the combine’s performance.
“I usually start at the back and work my way to the front. I can determine my losses and if they are acceptable. Then I go area by area to find the problem. Is it something in the cleaning shoe? If the cleaning shoe performance is acceptable, then is my separating performance acceptable? And then finally my threshing?”
John acknowledges that, since the rotary combine concept is 30 years old, different ways of checking its performance have been formed. He hopes to streamline and standardize the process of examining the combine, partially through the GoHarvest app, to improve billable hours performance and provide better product to Sydenstricker Nobbe’s customers.
“When I think of settings and optimization, I really like to lean on the GoHarvest app, because everybody has access to it: technicians, customers, parts, sales, everybody,” he says.
Check Out the Day In the Cab Video
Take a closer look at a day in the life on the job with John Crumbaugh, combine specialist with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners, through exclusive video filmed during Precision Farming Dealer’s Day in the Cab.
11:20 a.m. John and I head inside and step into a conference room, where John joins a Teams meeting to set goals for a series of customer clinics (planned through July and August) he plans to pitch to the dealership, specifically how they will incorporate the aftermarket side of the business and drive sales.
The one thing that becomes clear immediately is that a winter inspection program will be key in driving work on machines, which John believes will drive precision sales.
“I’m anticipating our key deliverables will be technology adoption through an increase in sales,” he says. “Obviously in some cases, we’re going to have to sell new technology to increase. But the key metrics we drive are: increasing technology adoption rates, technology utilization rates and competitive conversions.
“To ensure we deliver effective events, we need to start by gaining alignment on our objectives. The last element to this I broke into a couple segments: how will we measure ourselves? What will we deliver for the company? What will we deliver for the customers? How can we develop the team and the process?”
John offers the idea of using numbered coupons to track how many customers would come to an in-shop winter inspection program, which would let the dealership track attendance year-over-year.
Other ideas fly around the room: highlighting expert alerts for customers, Service Advisor Remote, uptime opportunities, reminding customers about bundled access to JDLink. The core ideas remain the same, however: demonstrate the value of precision technology to customers apart from the immediate cost and offer discounts to customers to get them in the shop.
John lays out what he wants to cover with customers, including new draper headers, AutoPath, Machine Sync and Active Yield, which Moscow Mills Store Manager Chad Cox believes many customers are not using to its full potential.
John adds that he’d like to include staff from other locations (including a technician familiar with the topics) in the presentation, to avoid it becoming “John’s presentation,” as he puts it.
12:30 p.m. John wraps up the meeting as Curtis Alderson, precision ag consultant, walks in and joins us. He and John discuss what was talked about in the meeting before Curtis hits us with the bad news: the customer we were going to visit this afternoon has just canceled. We’re disappointed, but then a new opportunity presents itself: lunch.
John, myself and Chad (Curtis already ate) hop into Chad’s truck and book it down to Taormina’s, a local Sicilian restaurant. We enjoy a hearty, high-calorie meal (my meatball sub really hits the spot) as Chad and John discuss the local Little League and tell me how they both recently relocated to Missouri. Chad tells me about living in Idaho, which he describes as “a lot more boring than you’d imagine.”
1:45 p.m. We head back to the Moscow Mills location so John and I can film a series of videos to be released on the Precision Farming Dealer website. After walking among the few combines Sydenstricker Nobbe has at the store (yet another reminder of the equipment shortage), we end up in the back of the lot fiddling with a brand new S770 that will be going to a customer soon. But for now, John removes the wires and pops open the side of the unit to expose the ActiveVision cameras (part of the Combine Advisor package) to explain to me, behind the camera, why it’s so important.
In the videos, we cover John’s role as the resident “combine specialist” at Sydenstricker Nobbe, as well as the key precision technology that he’s excited about. Getting around the combines, in and out of the cabs (and in John’s case, on top to fiddle with the auger) is uncomfortable in the heat. But the content is worth it.
2:45 p.m. John and I hop back in his truck to head back toward the St. Charles location, where Kim is finishing up her interview for Farm Equipment’s Dealership of the Year and has acquired a fresh, un-vandalized rental for us to drive back to Wisconsin. But on the way back, John and I get to talking about the future of precision farming or rather, its future label: normal farming.
“I agree with the idea that precision is a part of normal farming. I don’t even know if it much justifies segmenting it out because if you’re competitive today, likely you’re using some or a lot of precision technology,” he says. “My hunch is we’re probably a few years away from fully autonomous equipment. In 2018, Deere introduced a combine that can automate the 5 main combine settings. And in general, most progressive customers are very comfortable with that technology now.
Going above and beyond to get a good shot for the video, Combine Specialist John Crumbaugh works to unlatch the unloading auger from transport position on a brand new S770 combine.
“The last thing that usually comes up is, ‘If my driving speed is maximized or optimized, how’s my grain cart going to keep up?’ Machine Sync, with a very simple Wi-Fi antenna, keeps the grain cart in the right spot every time. I think we can see how autonomous vehicles are really not that far off.”
John is a believer in the future of larger autonomous equipment and isn’t as convinced of the autonomous “fleet” concept.
“As it pertains to my background in vegetables, that equipment was traditionally much smaller,” he says. “And what I’ve seen is, quite quickly, we got much larger equipment that was far more productive. And while yes, it’s problematic when you have a downtime failure on those machines, it is simpler when you’re not keeping track of as many of those machines. I’ll be very blunt: who wants to manage 20 of something if two of something can do the same job?”
He’s quick to add, however, that he never says never when it comes to the future of technology. In the next 5 years, John does give a few forecasts: more integration of precision technology and process automation.
“Thinking about being able to use the John Deere Operations Center to do side-by-side comparisons on farm trials, I think we’ll see more of that,” he says. “I think we’ll continue to see more of the processes automated.
“Here’s one thing I would project for the future. Five years from now, we will look back and we’ll say, ‘Why in the world did we ever have a GPS receiver on the tractor that is pulling the corn planter? We should’ve had it on the corn planter all along.’ And that’s what AutoPath does, is it puts a GPS receiver on the corn planter.”
One thing John says is clear to him: more producers are less willing to operate machinery without all their precision working. “Even if the machine operates and puts seed in the ground right, if our customers aren’t mapping or documenting their progress, then it’s not a successful operation to them,” he says.
He believes, after all, that selling precision tech to farmers is simple at its core: explain how the product can truly solve the farmer’s problem.
“Truly, in some cases, if you really do a good job listening, and you really remind the customer that you’re trying to solve the problem they have, not just explain how technology is cool, it becomes pretty simple,” he says. “Make sure you understand the problem the customer’s presenting to you and thoroughly explain how technology will solve it.”
3:20 p.m. John and I pull up to the St. Charles location, where the same two compact tractors hold up the same sign we saw this morning. We walk back into conference room where we left Ted and Kim this morning, finding Kim packing up our camera gear and Ted cleaning up empty water bottles. John and I shake hands, I thank him for his time, and he disappears out the door. Then about 60 seconds later, he comes back and hands me the mic I had left clipped to his shirt. What a nice guy.