Tech mavens blaze trails
Updated: Thursday, December 20, 2012 12:29 PM
Growers, companies invest in training to boost productivity, limit travel expenses
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Larry Misenhimer wouldn't have described himself as a techie a decade ago.
Nowadays, Misenhimer, 62, is a full-time technology guru, helping southeast Idaho growers understand and use innovations that until a few years ago were the stuff of science fiction.
Self-steering tractors capable of maintaining perfectly straight lines on slopes, GPS-driven mapping software used to get the most of seed and fertilizer applications, tractors that are remotely monitored to alert operators to problems, combines that assume control of nearby grain carts, wireless data transfer from a tractor to an outside computer, moisture sensors that activate irrigation pivots when needed -- the technology is either already in use on farms in the Pacific Northwest or coming soon.
Prices of the high-tech advances range from about $1,200 for a controller for variable-rate seeding and fertilizer application to more than $20,000 for more advanced and complicated satellite guidance technology.
But with the cost comes the need to understand and get the most from the computer-based systems. As major equipment manufacturers such as John Deere, Case IH, New Holland and AGCO continue taking technology to the next level, dealerships have ramped up training for their staff and customers to get the most out of the innovations.
"If you bring out a new piece of equipment, if you don't know the technology and what it will do for you to better your farming operation ... it's just a piece of equipment sitting in the yard," said Misenhimer, the ag management solutions manager with Christiansen Implement, a John Deere dealer in American Falls, Idaho.
At the corporate level, John Deere has encouraged individual dealers to establish separate technology departments, run by full-time managers such as Misenhimer to help growers. Since the company started the push a year ago, most dealerships either have the departments in place or are planning them, said Michael Albaugh, training development manager for John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group.
"The amount of information pushed to or received off of machines can be daunting to a lot of grower customers," Albaugh said.
Dealerships have found it no less challenging to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology.
"It's going more and more computerized," said Jason McLean, precision farming manager with the American Falls-based Case IH dealership Pioneer Equipment.
The path that led Misenhimer toward becoming a "computer guy" can be traced back roughly a decade, when he was the dealer's combine manager. New combines came out with sensors to calculate yields and grain moisture.
"It just kind of went hand-in-hand with (GPS) guidance, which came out a little bit later, so the guidance fell into my category also," Misenhimer said. "It got so big so fast that I could not cover the whole department. We made it a separate department."
The dealer has also created a virtual training classroom that uses cameras, microphones and computers so teachers can interactively train students in remote locations.
"It used to be you'd have to leave the dealership for three to four days to go where the training was at," Misenhimer said.
During the spring, the dealership used the virtual classroom to train local growers to use JDLink, a new communication technology that allows farm managers and dealerships -- if growers request it -- to remotely monitor a tractor's operation.
Some large farms have gone as far as employing their own technical support. As a manager with Driscoll Brothers Farm in southeast Idaho, Keith Warner's job primarily entails keeping abreast of technology and making sure the software runs properly.
Aided by training, Warner has the wherewithal to keep the rest of his staff current on innovations.
The farm always has the most modern equipment available -- and under warranty -- due to its practice of trading out half of its tractor fleet every two years.
Yields on the farm have steadily increased since the farm began using GPS equipment to apply fertilizer at variable rates about 10 years ago. This year, Warner tried variable-rate sugar beet seed application, increasing density in poor soils to increase productivity.
"We have field men sample every 2 acres for fertilizer, excess lime and things like that. We take those points and try to make a map we can variable rate plant off of," Warner said.
This was also the farm's first season with JDLink, which monitors tractors and other equipment. Warner recalled getting a call from the dealership through JDLink notifying him that the hydraulic oil in a tractor was low. It also offers data on fuel use and the cost of running a tractor, which are invaluable for tracking expenses.
Next season, he's eager to implement wireless data transfer technology.
"Somebody is out in the field, I can give him what he needs and keep him going without having to drive out there," Warner said. "I think it will save a lot of time. I spend a lot of time on the road."
With their AFS Pro 700 integrated display, growers can now access and make instant electronic farm records. In mid-November, Pioneer Equipment invited Case IH training staff to American Falls to show farm managers simulations of the display as well as the older model, the FM-1000.
More than 50 farm representatives attended the training at Lance Funk Farms, which requested it after upgrading to the Pro 700s earlier this fall. Merle McLean, a manager with Lance Funk Farms, likes the increased mapping capabilities of the Pro 700, the heightened precision and the user-friendly format.
"They brought the technicians in from the factory this time. That's something they haven't done before," McLean said. "There's been a lot more training to the grower himself."
Timing of the training was ideal for Robert Macias, field operation manager with the 22,000-acre Jentzch-Kearl Farms in Rupert, Idaho. Prior to this season, his farm had five tractors with GPS. It's upgraded to 13 GPS-equipped tractors and has started utilizing variable-rate fertilizer and sugar beet seed applications.
"Our stand was considerably better," Macias said. "Case IH Pioneer locally has really stepped up their training, which has helped me. I come back and train our guys on it, as well."
McLean said Idaho growers have traditionally been slow to adopt new technology, waiting for other regions to "work out the bugs." Now that they've seen the considerable cost savings technology can bring them, he predicts they'll be quicker to use new products.
Dustin Riel, parts manager and precision farming specialist with Burrows Tractor, a New Holland dealer serving Washington customers in Yakima, Wenatchee and Sunnyside, said his dealership last year began offering open houses and demonstrations to train customers.
"We have a tractor set up and ready to go with an auto-guidance system. We let people sit in it and feel what it's like to have it drive itself," Riel said.
In his service area, most customers come from orchards, vineyards and hop farms. The trees and trellises sometimes block GPS signals and hinder the precision of the technology, Riel said.
He said GPS planting and precision pruning have caught on among his clientele lately. He noted the GLONASS system, which allows growers to tap into Russian satellites, has reduced GPS signal challenges. More orchards are also implementing variable rate fertilizer application, he said. In the future, Riel expects auto-guided platforms supporting pickers as they move down rows will become commonplace in the industry.
One major dealer that offers a full line of AGCO farm equipment is so sold on the need to train staff and customers in advanced technology that it's opened its own college.
The parent company of Peterson Cat -- which runs dealerships in California, Central Oregon and Southwest Washington -- opened Peterson University about four years ago in San Leandro, Calif. Peterson became an AGCO dealer after Caterpillar sold its Challenger tractor line to AGCO in 2002. Peterson Cat also has a satellite training facility in Portland with an interactive classroom.
"It's not only for our employees, because it's needed for our employees to properly service the customers, but it's also for the customers themselves," said Mace Gjerman, training manager at Peterson University.
When Gjerman joined Peterson 25 years ago, the company employed a single worker dedicated to training.
Papé Machinery in Tangent, Ore., has a virtual classroom serving Oregon's John Deere customers and staff.
"From the dealership's point of view, they probably got their investment back in the first three sessions they didn't have to travel," said Tom Wells, territory manager with Papé Machinery, which has seven John Deere dealers in Oregon and six in Washington.
In his service area, Wells said growers tend to embrace technology quickly, as half of the acreage is planted to grass seed, an input-intensive commodity.