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On this edition of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast we’re revisiting the top 3 most listened to interviews of 2023.

John Deere introduced its autonomous 8R tractor to the world at CES 2022 – and autonomy went mainstream. Our interview with Scott Shearer about the big announcement became the most listened to podcast of 2022. The chair of the department of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University shares what surprised him about the announcement of the 8R and reveals his predictions for the future of autonomous farm equipment.

Case IH dealer Titan Machinery announced a new partnership with agtech company Augmenta to offer customers a smart and automated variable rate application system. In our 2nd most listened to podcast of 2022, Titan Machinery’s Sam Christianson joined us to talk about the partnership and its impact on customers.

Part one of our two-part series with Ag Express vice president of sales and marketing Jim Steinke checks in at number 3 on the countdown. Steinke discusses the history of Ag Express Electronics and how the company has evolved over the last 30 years.

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Full Transcript

Noah Newman:

Oh, the year just flew by. As we revisit the top three most listened to Precision Farming Dealer Podcasts of 2022. I'm your host, Noah Newman, associate editor. Great to have you with us as always. Let's jump right into the countdown. Checking in at number three, Ag Express Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Jim Steinke. Managing editor Michaela Paukner caught up with Steinke to talk about the 30th anniversary of Ag Express Electronics and how the company has evolved over the years. Let's listen in.

Jim Steinke:

My name is Jim Steinke. I am vice president of sales and marketing for Ag Express Electronics. I'm in charge of the marketing and sales efforts at Ag Express. I was employee number 24 in 1998, and we have over 170 employees now.

Michaela Paukner:


Jim Steinke:

That's pretty solid, sustainable growth, and it's all caused by being forward thinking in the industry and sticking to our core values and sticking to our brand promise. If we do that, I know that we'll be around for another 30 years helping the industry.

Michaela Paukner:

What was your role when you first started there?

Jim Steinke:

I was hired as a technician, go back 10 years. All AG Express hired was technicians, a technician to do basically everything. A technician at that time in Ag Express's world was a salesperson, a production worker. We were an accounting clerk, we were shipping department, inventory control, a maintenance team, and we found time to fix stuff too.

So then we had to develop a little bit differently. We had to go about things and be more intentional. Your technicians were pulled in so many different directions, so we started looking at the different jobs that a technician does and splitting them up and hiring people to do that and do that better. To hire professionals to do some of the stuff that we were doing and you get a little bit more efficient in your hiring practices.

Technicians were doing an awful lot and we weren't able to be as effective as we could have been. And so hiring salespeople to do that, hiring production workers, hiring engineers to do their jobs has been a blessing and has really triggered a lot of our growth.

Michaela Paukner:

Do you think it was an advantage for you to have started as a technician now looking at what you do now?

Jim Steinke:

Absolutely. If I wasn't a technician, I wouldn't value the whole Ag Express story and I see it from a perspective. I see everything that I do from a perspective of a service technician and how I'm going to affect that person at the bench, how bringing on this product line for us to sell might affect that person.

Knowing the ins and outs of the tractors and the combines and the sprayers, Anders and moisture testers from the service standpoint has really been a blessing. It makes me better at what I do because I understand it I think at a higher level. One of the things that is a challenge in our industry is teaching the agricultural concepts, fully learning why and how planting works, or spraying chemical application, the different kinds and stuff like that. That has always been a challenge.

But from a technician, what I was able to create that as I built test boxes and as I built custom solutions for testing equipment and repaired stuff, it brought that out of me personally. I don't think I'd be as good at what I do if I didn't have that background.

I was a technician for a long time with Ag Express. I had a lot of different roles of changed roles several times over my tenure at Ag Express from just regular technician to service manager, location to operations manager, and then into sales and marketing. When the ownership retired into '17, I was given the responsibility as the sales and marketing efforts of Ag Express, but it was a part of my job as operations manager to get out on location.

I couldn't give everything to it, and about a year and a half later, the decision was made to move me fully into this role. So Q4 of 2019, I mean, I was fully moved into this role as sales and marketing and given the responsibility of development and growth of the sales efforts of Ag Express.

I truly am a blessed person. I've known that for a long, long time, and I work for a really good company that respects its employees, takes care of its employees and honors its customer base to the highest level. Agriculture is probably the greatest industry you can ever work in, and for whatever reason, a lot of people don't understand it.

They don't seek it out until they're in it, or they grew up in it because it's just the people that we work with, the people that we work for. You use the term salt of the earth, and people just have a different level of understanding, trust, belief system. Some industries don't have it, they don't, and unfortunately, those industries struggle sometimes. So again, I feel like I'm blessed to be a part of the agriculture industry too, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Michaela Paukner:

Me too. I feel like this is a great place to be and I'm glad to be here too. I know AG Express is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and you guys have an interesting startup story. Could you tell us a little bit about that story and how you got started?

Jim Steinke:

Well, we got started back in 1992, again, 30 years ago, and the four previous owners of Ag Express worked for DICKEY-john. DICKEY-john is a major electronics manufacturer in agriculture and at the time they worked at DICKEY-john has the service center. They had the big giant six outside service centers.

They decided at that time to pull all of their external service centers into one location, Auburn, Illinois, and to close down all the external service centers. Well, the original ownership decided they didn't want to do that. They didn't want to move their families to Illinois. They didn't want to walk that route.

So they devised the plan to keep doing what they were doing, fixing ag electronics in the same cities that they were in. Ironically enough, actually the same buildings that they were in at that time. So they started Ag Express, went around in that first year, built relationships with other manufacturers in ag and developed some relationships with them. So Ag Express was formed by being able to repair to the component level ag electronics.

Over the years, we have developed into changed our business format and things as we organically grow. We grew into a company that could provide solutions, cable solutions in particular, and started building wiring harnesses and natural fit with build planter harnesses. We fix a lot of planter monitors and then all of a sudden we start fixing and repairing speed sensors and sprayer controls and Baylor monitors.

All of that needs that harnessing, so we developed a harness program, a custom harness program, that at the time when it first started, back when I started in 1998, it was just basically technicians that were building it when we weren't fixing stuff or talking on the phone troubleshooting things, we were building harnesses, so producing them.

Or you'd have a seasonal help, part-time, seasonal help doing some cable production also. To now, we have a team of people, four locations with four production facilities, and on that team, we probably have, quickly adding it up in my head, 45 people building cables at four different locations. It was a pretty good growth over the course of time, that's for sure.

Michaela Paukner:

So back in the days when the four previous owners were working for DICKEY-john, how did they get the business off the ground? Did they encounter any issues?

Jim Steinke:

There's all kinds of issues at the beginning. You have to forge the relationship, so you have to find the people that you need to talk to at the different manufacturers. You have to market who you are, and back in the early '90s, it was different. It was no social media, no real websites, things like that. The internet wasn't a real deal.

So we went to a bunch of farm shows and it was basically a grassroots boots on the ground. One of the owners himself did an awful lot of traveling around to make these relationships and then it was a very localized aspect of Ag Express at that time. At that time we had three different locations, one in Grand Island, Nebraska, one in Des Moines, Iowa, and one in Sulfur Springs, Indiana.

We were very focused on those local areas, the Iowa and Nebraska and Indiana, even though we grew and you could see some growth across the country, it was mainly in those states or neighboring states that we had most of our business and it was all repair business at that time also.

Obstacles, besides being able to get the word out of what we were doing and how we were doing it and why we existed in the world. We weren't a DICKEY-john dealer anymore. We didn't have access to DICKEY-john parts, and DICKEY-john was somebody that was a major player in the game, so we had to figure out a lot of stuff on our own.

From repair side of things, there's different schematics to tell you where to go to fix things, theory of operation, testing, so we had to build all our own test equipment. If you were to see the test equipment that our technicians use today, some of it is still the same original test equipment that we had back then. We had to draw out and acquire some of the schematics by technicians just sitting at a table and drawing out what the circuit looked like.

Those were difficult times, but you learn how to pair stuff fairly easily and quicker that way when you have those challenges in front of you.

Noah Newman:

Great stuff there from Jim, our third most listened to podcast of 2022. Now, you can hear our next guest at the upcoming Precision Farming Dealer Summit January 9th in St. Louis. It's coming up. There's still time to register. Head to for more information or hey, you can shoot me an email at

Our second most listen to podcasts of the year features Titan Machinery's Sam Christensen, the director of precision and machine control systems, talks about his company's new partnership with ag tech company Augmenta. Let's listen in, here's Sam and Michaela.

Sam Christensen:

Right now, it currently is a real time variable rate application device, so it is utilizing a stereo camera, which they just came out with their third generation of it, so very new hardware that was engineered very forward looking with the computing power engineered into it to add some of the features that they're working on. So there's a stereo camera up on your roof, it's got, I believe, there are six forward-facing cameras and then there's also a weather camera that looks up at the sky and those are reading infrared and light spectrum.

So they're reading the biomass of the crop and then they're also analyzing the chlorophyll saturation and content. So real time crop health reading, and they're looking out approximately 60 feet in front of your, whether it's a sprayer or a tractor, you can mount it on really anything.

That's the device, and then it's controlled by a tablet in your cab and that just tees into your harness for your ISO monitor. It's going to splice in information, essentially. It's reading what you're telling your sprayer to do and it's going to change that message on the way through. It's not currently going to vary by section on your sprayer.

It's varying your whole boom, but your section control or your variable rate prescription that you have would be still doing whatever that was going to vary as far as sectionality goes. So if you have an Aim Flex II system and that does turn compensating, let's say, or a Hawkeye II system, that system on its own is still going to be doing that variability. This system is just bumping rate up or down based on what it's seeing for crop health and crop dancing.

Michaela Paukner:

So then is the program and the system itself making the changes automatically, the farmer doesn't have to go in there?

Sam Christensen:

Correct, and it makes you a map of that that you can overlay. So if you had a prescription map from your agronomist, this is one of the cool things. Other technologies like this, it seems like aim to replace your agronomist where the name of this system is augmented and it's truly augmenting whatever you or your agronomist or your machine are trying to do.

So if you're using a prescription from an agronomist, and you have that variable rate loaded in there, your machine is still going to utilize that for controlling its base. All this system is doing is relaying back the crop density and crop health, and it's going to take that base up or down and you put in the parameters for what controls that.

So as the grower, if the system logic to you is that I want to spend what I was going to spend on my inputs anyway and I want to go for a yield bump, then you could maybe put that target rate a little bit higher than you originally intended to and put the minimum down a little bit lower than you originally intended to go. It's going to give your healthier areas of your field a little bit more than your base rate and it's going to cut those unhealthy areas to a little bit less than your base rate automatically on the go.

Michaela Paukner:

That seems like it would be really valuable, especially now with the high input prices.

Sam Christensen:

Exactly. That was why I thought it would be super attractive. Your ROI is even faster right now in this current environment with the inputs being what they're,

And then the other thing that was really exciting about it, which timing is a little bit of, timing is everything as they say, but you have, whether it's Deere or Precision Planting at their winter conference, I'm sure you've heard a lot about that. Everybody's focusing on that segment of the market right now and this is what a lot of them are talking about having in a year or two. This already has some of those capabilities. I think this is already really breakthrough in itself, because nobody else is able to do this real time variable on the fly.

Looking forward, and a lot of what we've heard from potential competitors to this, like John Deere and Precision Planting, because I feel like they're probably the two biggest megaphones in this marketing area. Either of their two products, it looks like, and their systems are going to take multiple devices to cover your boom, and this is all running off of that one camera device and it's covering up to a 150-foot area, where investment-wise, this is going to be significantly at a cost advantage compared to our competitors.

Those ones, from what I've heard, it could be anywhere from six to 10 devices to cover your boom, and then you've got devices on a boom, maybe getting dew or mud or chemical splashed on them, where this one's going to be up on top of your cab safely out of the way of all those other elements.

Michaela Paukner:

Recently, Titan Machinery announced that it was partnering with Augmenta and how did that partnership come about?

Sam Christensen:

So I've been the director of precision farming and machine control, since I believe August 1st was effective date, but then I had to continue running the two dealerships I was running for a month or two after that. But in July, so even before we had announced anything as far as me changing my position, Preston posted, the representative for Augmenta, would be our regional sales rep, was already coming into me.

He knows one of my sales guys, so he was already coming into me kind of putting the bug in my ear about it. Then as soon as the announcement was made with me changing positions, he started asking me about how it works to get all of Titan signed up as a dealer. Really, I had to explain to him, which we do with most vendors, that the way we're set up, at our corporate office, I don't order stuff for stores and I can't flick my pen and sign them up for something that none of them have asked to be signed up for.

So the way I told it to him was I facilitated several meetings, Teams meetings and stuff, and then he had invited us to send as many people as we wanted down to a field day that they had this winter in Arkansas, and basically to see real world so that we're not just talking about what it does. I had lined up the meetings and I had several stores interested in the technology and then I did get a store to send one of our more senior specialists down there who's particularly focused on sprayers.

And when that guy came back from that field demo, he told me, "This is the real deal. It really works." Once he was on board, he talked to his manager and he ordered up, and then one of our other stores that was very interested in also ordered up early. From there we had to meet a minimum order requirement, which like I had told him before, I can't just order stuff. So Preston then went store to store to the other stores that we had talked to and accumulated the orders required to meet that minimum. And so once we met the minimum, then we could sign up as a dealer.

Michaela Paukner:

So you talked a lot about the customer benefits of this and what are some of the benefits to the dealership to have this partnership with Augmenta?

Sam Christensen:

Well, as far as like a product offering for the dealer side of it, this works on any brand of sprayer as long as it's got an ISO monitor. But we can go on a competitor's farm, we can go on our normal customer base's farm. We can market this to people pulling pull type sprayers or pull type side-dress applicators or we can stick with the self-propelled guys.

Our audience is very broad with it and then it's got a decent margin to it. Our pool of prospective buyers is really big and then we're going to make money on each product that we sell. From the support side, it's a non-repairable device or a non-serviceable device, if that makes sense, the way I say that.

So we aren't going to be out with a screwdriver taking apart that camera if something doesn't work in there. And then the tablet, we're obviously not going to be taking apart your tablet, so if those don't work, troubleshoot over the phone. We might go out and push buttons in person, but if we can't get to it that way, the support is over the air from Augmenta, which I think is pretty cool.

They can tell when they log in or take your device if it needs to be sent in, they tell you to send it in. They do the repair or replace the device and send you a new one. So from a service requirement standpoint, it's not huge. The install time is very short. It's like an hour, maybe hour and a half, and you've got this thing installed.

Then if this thing fails, if something's not working on it, like this fails off to the side, you can bypass it. Worst case scenario, you maybe have to spray for that a day or two just doing your normal variable rate application or your normal flat rate application. That's worst case scenario. So it's not like having a row clutch fail and then that row's not planting. Basically, this is just something you can bypass if you want to, if you need to.

Michaela Paukner:

So that's another benefit on both the customer and dealer side, it sounds like.

Sam Christensen:

Correct. It's like a fail safe if you want to call it that.

Michaela Paukner:

Then I know you mentioned that Titan had to meet that minimum order requirement for this partnership to happen, so just wondering if there's any other things that you guys have to do as part of the partnership?

Sam Christensen:

Yeah, when we sell, so for the dealerships who haven't ordered a device yet, when they order their first device, they're going to have some training required as far as how to install the system and then how to set up the system. Then likely they'll have Preston or some member of their team will go out to the field with them when actually when they do their first field startup. So they do train us on how to run the device and everything.

Noah Newman:

And we're headed to The Ohio State University for the most listened to Precision Farming Dealer Podcast of 2022, Scott Shearer, chair of Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at OSU caught the attention of our listeners with this conversation about John Deere's introduction of the autonomous AR tractor. Shearer shares what surprised him about the announcement and talks about his predictions for the future of autonomous farm equipment.

Michaela Paukner:

I was wondering what your thoughts were and if the announcement of an autonomous tractor to be used for tillage was something that you expected.

Scott Shearer:

I'm going to say yes, I guess I'm a little surprised by the timing.

Michaela Paukner:

What surprises you about the timing?

Scott Shearer:

I think it's an interesting space and when I look around. And I'm going to talk about the big three manufacturers, the AGCOs, the CNH Industrial and the Deeres. I think when I look individually at everything the companies are doing, they're all moving towards increasingly autonomous equipment.

I guess what I'm saying is when I look at Auto Steer, when I look at end of returns, gradually these companies are removing increasingly more and more control. They're removing it from the operator and the piece of equipment. In other words, the person sitting in the cab of the tractor is really being relegated to, and this is probably an unfair term, but really a human monitor for performance of that piece of equipment in the field.

Some people might say the human's a babysitter now. I don't think that's quite the way it is, but one of the things is when you have a human in the tractor cab responsible for the operation, obviously that takes care of a lot of potential product liability as well as liability on the part of the farmer.

So when I say I was a little surprised that Deere made the announcement of a fully autonomous tractor, I guess what I'm saying is I think it's coming and I think it's going to be interesting to see how Deere rolls out access to this fully autonomous AR. Relative to the tillage operation, I see that as more than likely one of the first operations to be automated.

My point is with tillage, you can be off a little bit and nobody's going to get too upset. When I look at automated seeding operations, if you're off on those a little bit, everybody sees that for the rest of the growing season. Automated tillage, automated spraying operations, those make a lot of sense as this automation is in its infancy.

The other thing I'm going to remind you is we knew Deere was headed in this direction by virtue of their purchases. They bought Blue River. They bought Bear Flag Robotics, and so everything told me they were moving in this direction. I was just a little surprised with the timing of the announcement in some respects.

One of the other things I'm going to observe is let's not forget that CNH industrial purchased Raven at the end of 2021. We can make a lot of statements about a lot of different things, but the one thing we do know about Raven is they had two autonomous products in the marketplace. What was behind Deere's public announcement of the fact that they're going to market that fully autonomous A&R, I don't know.

I can't get inside of the mind of the leadership of Deere other than to say, in general, I think we have manufacturers like AGCO manufacturers, like CNH Industrial and Deere moving away from historically their role as an iron company into being a technology company. I don't think anybody would dispute that statement that I've made.

Michaela Paukner:

There have been reports that John Deere is going to offer the autonomous tractor as a service. Do you have thoughts about the logical options for how Deere would go about this?

Scott Shearer:

I thought somewhere in that 45-minute press conference, I heard that they were going to rent or lease these AR tractors, these autonomous tractors for the first couple years.

I don't know what the marketing strategy is or the marketing plan is other than to say as this technology gets rolled out, my guess is Deere's going to learn a lot, and that's going to translate into upgrades to the product. As time goes along, I think everybody understands that Deere is probably in a position where they feel comfortable making the announcement and beginning to roll out the product in some form or fashion.

But like I said, there's still this liability issue and who's going to assume that liability. I think it was interesting at the Precision Farming Dealer meeting that the three companies that you had on stage talking about Auto Card and now what has been renamed OMNiDRIVE had various ways of handling any liability. Essentially what I heard coming from those three dealers were they had agreements that they required the farmer to sign in terms of accepting liability.

Now, that product's a bit unique because the only way that product operates is if there is a human in the field operating the combine, and that's the autonomous grain cart. That's a little different scenario than what Deere has announced, because from my understanding of the press conference, the farmer takes the tractor to the field, initiates the autonomous operation, then the farmer leaves the field.

And so again, I think it's an interesting incremental step. I'm also well aware that OMNiPOWER Product, which was the Dot coming out of Canada that Raven purchased and now is being marketed, that's beginning to gain some market acceptance. I know there's one of the Dots operating in the state of Ohio, if I'm not mistaken, with one of our retailers applying fertilizer.

I just think it's an interesting time that these, at least the two products I've mentioned with Raven, are being accepted in the marketplace. And Deere may be testing the waters in some respects to see what their customers are looking for in the way of automation.

Michaela Paukner:

With CNH already having Raven and OMNiDRIVE now, what does Deere's autonomous tractor mean for the ag equipment industry is-

Scott Shearer:

Well, I think if you talk to Deere that they would say that they have some developments that are ahead of where CNH is at. And I don't know enough about the internals of what Deere is doing versus what CNH/Raven is doing. So I'll put that one to the side because it'd probably be inappropriate for me to comment on that.

My take home message, when CNH bought Raven and when Deere bought Bear Flag Robotics and Blue River, it tells me these companies are serious about automation. It used to be that automation was being done by venture-backed startup companies, and I think Deere announcing the autonomous A&R tractor really means now that automation is becoming mainstream.

I think the real question will be is what is the market penetration of Deere's product offering? In other words, five years from now, if you will, what percentage of the AR tractors are being sold in a fully autonomous version? I think that's the question that a lot of these manufacturers are struggling with.

They know automation is here. They know if they're not automating their equipment, they may be at a decided disadvantage in the marketplace. But I think largely the marketplace is being tested right now with some of these new product offerings.

The other thing I'm going to say is, maybe this is fair, maybe it's not, but with the labor shortage right now, especially in rural America, especially with being seasonal in nature with a lot of these producers, some of these products might look pretty attractive to them. I'm reminded of those three dealers that we're talking about, Auto Cart/OMNiDRIVE about saying the one farmer that they partnered with said, "No, this isn't for me. It's only for the big farmers."

And then at the end of that demonstration period, the farmer's thinking, hey, I can get by with one less person in the field when I'm harvesting. That's starting to come home. I know here in the state of Ohio, we had a farmer offering to pay $30 an hour for a grain cart operator. That tells me that this labor storage problem, it's not perceived, it's real in rural America. Automation may be getting a foothold or may be viewed in a different light because of that labor shortage.

Noah Newman:

There you go. The top three most listened to podcasts of 2022, Jim Steinke, Sam Christensen, and Scott Shearer, a cavalcade of stars, and special shout out to Michaela Paukner for conducting those interviews. Happy New Year. We'll see you in 2023. I'm Noah Newman. Have a great day.