As Mark Vanderloop steps out of a Fendt 700 series tractor equipped with a Sabanto Steward autonomy kit, his customer, Jason, who runs a custom farming business, shares some thoughts about the technology.

“It won’t call in sick. It won’t show up hungover, and it will work weekends without complaining.”

Those are some of Jason’s top takeaways after watching the tractor autonomously mow one of his 70-acre fields near Fort Atkinson, Wis. 

“Seeing is believing,” says Vanderloop, as he demos the kit for Jason. “There have been a lot of promises made with autonomous offerings. But very few have actually come to fruition. Sabanto made it happen. They’re a fast-moving, agile company that’s willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

Vanderloop Equipment, a fourth-generation, family-owned AGCO dealership with locations in Brillion, Beaver Dam and Lena, Wis., has always been on the forefront of cutting-edge technology, dating back to the 1950s when it sold Sheppard tractors — one of the first brands to build its own diesel engines. Now, as an investing partner in the family business, Mark Vanderloop makes it his mission to continue the tradition of innovation.  

“What can I bring to the table that would have a big impact on agriculture and change the way people farm?…”

“I always think about the generations before us at the dealership, and all the new equipment they brought to the marketplace,” Vanderloop says. “What can I bring to the table that would have a big impact on agriculture and change the way people farm?”

Lightbulb Moment

Vanderloop found an answer to his question while reading a February 2023 Precision Farming Dealer “Day in the Cab” article that featured an all-access, behind-the-scenes look at Sabanto through the eyes of Cory Spaetti, vice president of product. 

“That’s what started this whole process,” Vanderloop says. “I worked with Cory Spaetti on a project several years ago. He visited our dealership when we were installing FieldView on forage harvesters. After reading the article, I called him and asked, ‘What do we need to do to make this work? We need to do this sooner, rather than later. We don’t want to miss a window of opportunity.’” 

Less than a year later, Vanderloop Equipment is ready to roll out the Steward autonomy kit for Fendt tractors model year 2022 and newer, with a price tag of nearly $65,000 for the kit and an annual subscription fee of $10,000, which covers maintenance and software updates.

“You can’t sell the technology if you don’t understand it…” 

“When you think about it, customers are essentially buying an employee in year one, and then the return on investment every year after that is huge,” Vanderloop says. 

Preparing for Autonomy

The proximity of the company’s Ames, Iowa-based headquarters to Vanderloop Equipment’s 3 locations helped streamline the process of preparing the dealership for autonomy. Engineers paid a visit to Vanderloop over the winter in 2023 to deliver a crash course on the system.

“Having them in our backyard has been a huge benefit,” Vanderloop says. “They brought our team up to speed on the kits and how to install them.”

Mark-Vanderloop-on-the-phone.jpgMark Vanderloop talks with a customer on the phone as the autonomous Fendt tractor follows its mission plan. Autonomy increases efficiency by freeing up the operator to focus on other critical work, Vanderloop says. Photo by: Noah Newman

The company requires its dealers to handle the installation process, and provide service as needed after the sale. The kit takes about 6-8 hours to install, Vanderloop says. It includes a main control unit that connects to the tractor’s steering and power systems. The main control unit has an operating system, Vehicle OS (vOS) and Vehicle Path Finding Module (vPFM), that converts field operations created in the Vehicle Mission Control (vMC) mobile and desktop application into instructions for the tractor to follow. 

The kit also includes LTE antennas, a GNSS unit, obstacle detection sensors and cameras that allow the operator to send and receive navigational and video data to monitor field operations in real-time.  

Vanderloop plans on inviting key members of Sabanto’s team back to the dealership for an educational roundtable with employees and customers soon. Until then, engineers are one call away when needed.

Demo Day

While there has been a significant learning curve, it didn’t take long for Vanderloop to become comfortable enough with the system to showcase it to customers like Jason. 

“This is only the second field I’ve used it on,” says Vanderloop, as he starts the tractor with a push of a button on his phone. “The user interface is very simple. Even though I’ve had minimal experience with it, it took 5 minutes to set everything up, and away we go.” 

Behind the Scenes: Autonomy Demo

Click here to watch a 1-on-1 interview with Mark Vanderloop as he demos the Sabanto Steward autonomy kit for a customer near Fort Atkinson, Wis. Vanderloop talks about how the system works, the value of new technology demonstrations, the process of bringing autonomy to the marketplace and more!

The demos are a critical piece to the autonomy puzzle, Vanderloop says, in more ways than one. Not only does a demo generate interest and build trust with customers, but it helps Vanderloop’s team get more experience with the system and identify kinks to work out during the off-season. 

“We told people at the WPS Farm Show that we were going to start carrying Sabanto autonomy kits before the end of 2023,” Vanderloop says. “It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to do it. We’ve delivered on the promise and are out here showing it to customers.” 

Vanderloop eventually hops out of the cab and lets the driverless tractor continue its path as he answers some questions from Jason.  

“Have you talked to any insurance companies? Is liability a concern?” Jason asks. 

“We haven’t, this is uncharted territory,” Vanderloop replies. “But isn’t it more of a liability when guys are in the cab for 18 hours a day?” 

“Can you take it off a 700 series and put it on any series Fendt?” 

“Yep, we can do that. The unique thing about Fendt tractors is they all run the same operating system. That uniformity will make it easier to jump from the 700 series to all the series.” 

“Who’s the ideal customer for something like this?” 

“It varies,” Vanderloop says. “It could be ideal for a smaller, father-son operation, where maybe they don’t have enough time to do all the field work along with all the tractor operations. Maybe this would allow them to start the tractor up before morning chores, let it do its thing, and then move it to the next field after wrapping up those morning chores.

“On the other end of the spectrum, there are large operations, where autonomy can allow a key operator to be more efficient at his job. You can take the most skilled operator and allow him to operate 3-4 tractors at once, which will increase his efficiency big time.” 

“Can you just buy the kit, or do you have to buy the tractor, too?” 

Switch-to-Autonomy.jpgOperators can go from autonomy mode to manual mode with the flip of a switch from inside the cab.Noah Newman

“You can absolutely just buy the kit,” Vanderloop says. “It’s no different than in the late 90s when you bought a tractor, and you bought a third-party steering system. Now, you’re essentially buying an operator.

“And if you want to take this kit from an autonomous tractor and sell it, we can pull the kit out for you, too. Once the autonomy kit is removed, this tractor is exactly what you would get off the factory line. So, if a customer wants to remove it and do something different, we can pop the autonomy kit off and move it to another tractor, or vice versa.” 

Buying Into Autonomy

Vanderloop says it’s crucial to have complete buy-in from everyone at the dealership before going all in on a new product or technology. 

“It’s important for everyone to understand the technology,” Vanderloop says. “Like with any product, you must have confidence and faith in it to sell it. It’s been a pretty smooth transition for us. When you look at today’s world, and what’s happening with technology in tractors, it’s much different than it was 5 years ago. Our technicians are really electronics experts as well.” 

Making Autonomy Reliable & Scalable

Mark Vanderloop was inspired to sell autonomy kits after reading a 2023 Precision Farming Dealer article featuring a day in the life of Cory Spaetti, Sabanto vice president of product, as he worked to bring autonomy kits to the market. Click here to go behind the scenes with Spaetti at Sabanto's Ames, Iowa, headquarters.

You won’t find anyone at Vanderloop Equipment with “Precision Specialist” on their business card, but everyone in the sales and service departments is expected to be extremely knowledgeable when it comes to precision farming. 

“A lot of that falls on our sales team,” Vanderloop says. “Most precision specialists at other dealerships are ultimately doing a lot of the selling anyways, so why double up? You can’t sell the technology if you don’t understand it.”

Autonomy has arrived faster than Vanderloop imagined when he started working for the family dealership 20 years ago, but so many other things did as well, like high inflation. He’s excited about the potential for autonomy to solve a lot of the problems facing his customers today.    

“As an industry, we’re dealing with labor shortages and financial challenges related to inflation,” Vanderloop says. “We have a lot of really good people around us, whether it’s on the farm, at the dealership or at the manufacturer level. Technology like this can allow them to be more efficient and ultimately magnify their skillsets.”

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