A trio of representatives from Precision Farming Dealer’s Most Valuable Dealerships (MVD) shared their keys to success during the 2024 Precision Farming Dealer Summit in Indianapolis. Adam Gittins, president and general manager of 2024 MVD HTS Ag, Jason Leary, ag technology manager for 2019 MVD Crystal Valley, and Scott Staum, regional advanced cropping system specialist for 2018 MVD Central Valley, detailed the processes and practices that make their businesses successful during a panel discussion. Here are some highlights from the conversation. 

What changes have you recently made to grow precision revenue?  

Staum: For the past 3 years, we’ve had consistent growth across all of our platforms in precision ag. A lot of that is due to increase in market share. We’ve restructured our team a little bit more since 2018. I believe that increase in market share is due to a lot more confidence from the producers in our area and a little bit more buy-in from our internal team as well. 

Leary: When we were named MVD in 2019, all of our services were a la carte — soil sampling, yield maps, analysis and so on. Since then, we’ve gone to a packaged program and bundled everything together as a per acre fee. We’ve also increased our on-farm research to test out the products we promote and provide data to our customers.

Gittins: We’ve really focused on putting the technology to use in our own operations, proving what the ROI is with our own data and taking it right to our customers. That strategy has proven to be profitable. It’s hard to argue with data, especially when they know it came from my farm or one of the other guys on the team, and it’s been analyzed by a third party. They also know that we’re farming and can talk the same language. 

How are you structuring pricing for precision services?  

Leary: On the agronomy side, we’re on a per acre bundled package. When we first came out with it, we had one package that included everything. It wasn’t really successful. My fear was with having multiple tiers, there would be different responses from people that have different experiences. I was nervous about having different tiers, but we ended up going to a three-tiered system that’s resulted in a better adoption rate. 

Gittins: When we started offering annual service plans in 2008 or 2009, we had maybe 4 people enroll. We’ve tweaked our service plans multiple times since then, and we’ve gotten to the point where we have enough customers enrolled in a service plan January 1 that we can pay for a full-time technician’s salary.

Staum:  We don’t have a service plan as far as equipment goes right now, but we’ve been supporting a bundle program with a bunch of precision ag services. On the equipment side, we’ve brought on more technicians. We have 3 technicians now, so we’re actually trying to take a little bit of that workload off 1 guy and spreading it to the 3 of them. That’s helped us take more service calls and installations.  

How do you build a good culture with your precision team?

Gittins: I firmly believe that our success rises and falls with the team. It’s very important to not only do a good job of hiring people, but then to also keep those people on staff. We’ve gotten creative in a few different ways to accomplish that goal. We offer an anniversary trip program. If an employee has been with us 5 years, we give them $2,500 to go on a trip with their family or friends. We can pay a bonus, and they’ll only remember it for a few weeks, but if you send them on a trip with their family, they remember that for many years. We just ask that they bring some pictures back from the trip, and we put them up on a bulletin board in the office. 

To prevent burnout, we have a rotation that prevents everyone on staff from being on call all the time. And I’m still on the rotation taking support calls with the rest of the team. We also implemented a 4-day work week over the summer. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, we work a 36-hour week — four 9-hour shifts, and everybody has a 3-day weekend. Half the team is off on Mondays and the other half is off Fridays. 

Leary: Hiring the right people is the most important thing initially and then keeping them. As a manager, you sit through interviews and really get a gut feeling for if that candidate’s going to fit your team or not. It’s hard to turn people away, especially in the labor market that we’re in. We’ve started a group text and try to have fun outside of work. We don’t do the 4-day work week, but we have flexibility in the off-season with people coming in late and leaving early.  

Staum: We’re fortunate that our team is close-knit. We do a team building, spirit weekend with no work-related activates and it’s all voluntary. Everybody has participated in it the last 3 years. We also do bi-weekly calls just to make sure everybody is up to speed on everything that is going on. If somebody is down and out and needs help, they can reach out for support.

We also get complete support all the way down from our board of directors, our CEO and all the senior leadership. They’re leading the charge and supporting precision ag technology because they see the value in it for our future.  

Are you doing anything unique to recruit new employees?

Leary: Our intern program has been huge. A high percentage of our full-time employees were interns at one time. We’ve even tried to go down to the high school level, inviting the local FFA schools to participate. It’s important to get the parents involved. Somebody in 10th grade might not be concerned about their future, but their mom is. It’s changed a bit — 5 years ago we were concerned about how to get an employee in 6 months. Now, it’s how do we get a good employee in 3-4 years?

Staum: This past year we reached out to a couple local colleges and expanded our internship program to where students can do on-the-job training with us and get a college credit while doing it. It’s a new program, so we don’t have any full-time hires from it, but we’re hoping it will lead to future hires soon.

Gittins: The idea of getting to kids as young as possible and educating them about the precision ag industry, I think is important because we’re seeing so many people leaving the rural areas and that just deflates the job pool. We’ve partnered up with some different schools. We work with a program teaching ag in the classroom to elementary level kids. We go to STEM fest and talk to our FFAs. Several of our team members have spoken at colleges, sharing what we do and talking about the industry in general. All these things are vitally important, being able to keep our name out there and share information about good jobs in rural areas.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made in your business operation the past 3 years, and what’s been the impact of that change?

Staum: Our company initiative to invest in precision ag, and not overload the guys. We’ve initiated an equipment hotline that we support with more staff when busy season arrives, and now the equipment team isn’t chasing their tail all the time. The biggest impact is the turnover rate has decreased considerably. 

Leary: On our equipment side, we’ve tried to keep the shop more consistent — not cramming everything in February or March like we used to. We’ve had some success buying used equipment, retrofitting it and selling it. On the agronomy side, going to the tiered system I mentioned earlier and having more of a consultant approach. Our precision ag staff has taken on more responsibility, going out and connecting with customers, whereas we used to rely heavily on our agronomy sales team.

Gittins: I could sum it up with structure and process. Being able to do the same things repeatedly and knowing what the goal is for every person on the team when we go out every day. It’s not just, “Go out and sell stuff, guys.” We’ve hired a sales manager, a marketing manager and a full-time accounting coordinator. We have a great structure within our team now, and that enables everyone to do the jobs they’re supposed to be doing instead of trying to wear every single hat. 

Looking to 2024 and beyond, what’s going to have the biggest impact on your business? 

Staum: Farm margins. Farmers are going to need a better return on their inputs, which fits right into a lot of the precision ag services and equipment that we’re promoting today. The bad thing is, one of the first places to get cut on the farmer’s budget could be precision ag. Another thing that might have a bigger impact on us too, where we’re at in Nebraska, some regulations might be coming with nitrogen management and water management. We’re trying to be part of that discussion going forward, so we’re prepared if it does happen. 

Leary: Autonomy is going to be big. On the ag retail side, I think there’s going to be a big opportunity for managing the boundaries and the guidance lines, or potentially creating the boundaries. And then we do a lot of custom application of Y-drops or fungicide, and getting the growers’ lines or boundaries from their system into our system so we can custom apply it. The whole management side of that could be a big opportunity.

Gittins: The biggest thing that’s going to drive our business forward this year and in future years is specific and focused targeted marketing. We want to identify growers that meet X, Y and Z criteria. We can profile who those growers are, then we can get a postcard out in front of them and follow it up with a phone call or an email campaign. That would allow us to consistently share what technology can do, show ROI numbers and how technology can impact them. We’re seeing a big uptick in the number of quotes that we’ve put out in front of guys as we’ve started this, and I think that will translate into a big uptick in sales moving forward.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity in precision sales and service in the years ahead?

Leary: Outside of our product line, the sprayer technology will be big. Boundary mapping is going to become a big deal as well. 

Gittins: Autonomy. We've got to get clean data to start with. A really good RTK boundary, regardless of what system they have, is going to be important. 

Staum: I think we're going to see a lot more farmers investing or upgrading in current equipment instead of buying new. That's going to be a big opportunity for us to bring the existing equipment up to a higher standard of efficiencies. 

How likely is autonomy to take off if we don't solve rural broadband issues? Is that going to be a roadblock that prevents progress?

Staum: Connectivity is going to be important. We're going to have to solve that issue before autonomy can be widespread. 

Leary: I think it will be regionally. In our area though, connectivity is not a problem. There's some spots, but for 80% of the area it's not a problem. 

Gittins: Connectivity is a huge challenge today, but all we need is a disruptive technology to hit the industry and that could be a distant memory for a whole bunch of people. There's always unique ways to solve challenges. Even if we don't have the connectivity, maybe they'll have a system that can be fully autonomous and offline with enough data pre-programmed into it so that it doesn't need a live link the entire time it's running. There's a lot of opportunity with autonomy, but there's going to be multiple iterations as we stair-step into it. Connectivity is one small challenge along the way.