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Service after the sale

It's the first year you've run GS3 2630 on your combine along with an iTC receiver. You get a crash course on how it works when the technician installs it. As you're harvesting corn, the monitor reads 4,000 bushels and 30% moisture. Although you would love to think you're bringing in that many bushels per acre, you snap back to reality and know something is obviously haywire. It's past regular business hours and the dealership has long since closed. Whom do you call?

If you live in the Lenox, Iowa, area, you call Nick Custer, a customer support technician for Barker Implement. He's the person you want on speed dial 24-7.

A 2010 Iowa State University graduate, Custer began his career with the dealership while still in high school. “I started at Barker between my junior and senior year washing combines and tractors,” he says. “When I went off to college, I still worked at Barker during the summer as a technician in the shop.”

Back then, he realized precision ag technology was gaining momentum and even talked with the dealership's owner, Todd Barker, about a position doing exactly what he's doing today.

After he graduated from college, the dealership wasn't quite ready to invest in a position dedicated completely to servicing the technology. So Custer continued to work in the shop that summer.

“In the fall of 2010, Barker needed a parts guy,” he says. “I went out on the road selling parts and took service calls.”

When the 2011 planting season rolled around, Custer's focus changed to handling calls related entirely to precision ag technology. On average, he fielded 20 to 50 calls and covered 20 to 200 miles a day.

“There were times I would have calls stacked up all day and be on the phone the entire day,” he says. “We have lots of people in our area investing in precision agriculture, and the use continues to grow. In fact, we can't even hold on to used equipment like displays and receivers. They are out the door before they touch the shelf.”

At the end of the season, Custer became one of four people who would cover eight stores to service the technology.

New breed of employee

Custer is among the new breed of employee that dealerships are looking to hire. These positions are evolving and are continuing to be in demand as more and more farmers adopt this technology.

In the beginning, as dealerships added precision farming tools to their lineups, they supported customers with existing staff.

But to keep customers happy and to prevent them from going elsewhere, equipment manufacturers now challenge dealers to ramp up their service-after-the-sale strategies and to capitalize on a potential profit center.

“John Deere wants us to do some sort of value-added service beyond our usual parts, sales, and service for the AMS line,” says Custer. “The goal is to get people more comfortable with precision ag and to help them be as efficient as they can be.”

In order to do that, the dealership developed the Equipment Optimization Program, which is based on a concept created by a Canadian dealership.

“I help farmers get the most out of their John Deere equipment. I make sure their precision ag equipment is set up right and ready to go to the field come spring,″ says Custer. ″I have five people under my belt now, and I am pretty much at their beck and call.”

Entry level agreements, which include phone support and software upgrades, retail around $400 annually. Advanced solutions, like equipment optimization with RTK and recordkeeping assistance, cost $6 per acre.

Farmer Todd Goldsmith is willing to pay for that value-added service after the sale this technology requires.

“I want someone who can answer my questions as they come up rather than trying to call a customer service center and explain it to them,” says Goldsmith, who farms near Corning, Iowa. “I've been on hold forever, and I can't wait that long. If I'm on a cell phone, service in some areas is so spotty that by the time I get someone on the phone, I could lose the call.”

With so many dollars invested in precision ag tools, Goldsmith knew his return on investment could be greater.

“I spent $100,000 to $150,000 on this technology, and I didn't feel like I was getting everything I could out of it,” he says. “I know so many guys who have this stuff and don't use it to its full potential because they get frustrated. I started out being that way too – trying to bounce through it. If it didn't work, I figured I'd work on it tomorrow. Tomorrow turned into next week because I had to get the crop in. If I have to turn off a monitor to get the work done, then so be it.”

″The most rewarding part about this job is figuring out the problem so I can get the farmer going again,″ says Nick Custer, a customer support technician for Barker Implement.

“A lot of people get new equipment and don't know half of what it does,” notes Custer. “Even though an operator's manual comes with their equipment, it's easier to call a technician.”

“It might sound easy to just open up a manual, but when you have to go, you have to go,” adds Goldsmith. “There's no time to sit and read a manual.”

Having a person like Custer in his corner is the assurance Goldsmith was looking for. “My big thing is being able to pick up the phone, call Nick, and say, ‘Hey, it's doing this or that.’ If he can't fix it over the phone, he's here within an hour if he can be,” Goldsmith says.

Harvesting Ag's geek squad

As dealerships strive to go the extra mile, they will be hard-pressed to find qualified people like Custer, who has almost a sixth sense about the technology.

“Based on last year's numbers, I expect we'll have at least 5,000 precision ag-related positions listed on our site in 2012,” says Eric Spell, president of AgCareers.com. “The majority of those openings are in dealerships. We're also seeing search firms post positions, and smaller dealerships may be more inclined to use a traditional search firm to find that person for them.”

It's a career that requires knowledge in computers, the ability to troubleshoot, and rapport with varying farmers.

“You definitely have to be good with electronics, and your problem-solving skills need to be pretty good as well,” Custer says.

A willingness to learn is also key. “Nothing makes you learn as quickly as being out in the field and doing it. Experience is the best teacher,” he adds.

Above all, it's about building a relationship with the farmer. “I have a customer in Missouri who recently invested in precision ag, but he really didn't have any knowledge about it, so he called me quite a bit this past spring,” Custer explains. “It was usually something simple, but he thought it was the best thing when I could give him the answer.”

Given the current unemployment rates, it should be fairly easy to fill these positions, right? The reality is the unemployed aren't busting down the barn doors, because many believe ag is labor-intense, low-tech, and low paying, which couldn't be further from the truth.

“We see quite a few positions for precision ag technicians start between $35,000 and $45,000,” says Spell. “Depending on experience, we've seen hourly wages anywhere from $16 to $22 per hour. Someone with five-plus years experience would earn between $50,000 and $65,000.”

So how can the opportunities that lie within ag's geek squad be communicated?

“It starts at the high school level. We need to instill in these kids that this area is a great career option,” says Spell.

Terry Brase, professor at Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says, “A key method to getting students interested in precision farming at the high schools is through our Career Academies. Kirkwood has five high school ag instructors using my materials to teach Introduction to Precision Farming as a college course to high school students.”

But Brase believes it should start sooner. “The introduction to agriculture as a career should come even earlier than high school,” he notes. “I attend middle school career days to talk about agriculture technology. I show videos of auto guidance tractors and bring impressive-looking equipment to start kids thinking. I see it as a big-picture way to make sure people see agriculture as a progressive and viable industry.”

A pioneer in this field, Brase realized over a decade ago that a specific skill set would be needed to service this equipment. In 2000, the college began offering a two-year degree in agricultural geospatial technology. It mirrored a similar program he started at Hawkeye Community College and has become the model for other colleges.

With technicians in high demand, the industry would have no worries if it could mass-produce people like Custer. “Technicians who service this technology are spread so thin. I wish I could clone Nick,” says Goldsmith.

Since that's not an option, other avenues need to be explored. Returning military, who are now among the highest unemployed group in the U.S., often have the skills required for this technology.

No matter where the pool of candidates comes from, one thing is certain: A career as a precision ag technician can challenge even the best in the field.

“This is going to be a challenging job for anyone,” says Custer. “Even if you know your stuff or think you know your stuff really well, it will test you. It will test your patience.”

Whether it's troubleshooting old equipment, keeping up on the latest introductions, or making upgrades in software, a lot of precision ag is trial and error.

“We call a lot of this ‘swapnostics.’ Because if you can't get something to work, you just swap it out,” he says. “Sometimes that's the only thing you can do.”

Yet it's a career Custer wouldn't trade, because at the end of the day, the ultimate payoff is providing exceptional service after the sale.

“It's awesome to have a problem that's really challenging,” Custer says. “The most rewarding part about this job is figuring out the problem so I can get the farmer going again. I don't leave a problem until I resolve it. If I didn't provide a solution, what good would I be?”

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Warriors in Agriculture

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More than 9% of returning servicemen and -women are currently unemployed. Thinking unconventionally to place them in jobs that capitalize on their skills is what the Ag Warriors program (AgWarriors.com) is about.

The program, which was launched at the 2012 World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, was organized to help returning veterans receive training in agriculture, a field that continues to see growth, especially in technology.

“We have a lot of exiting military men and women with skill sets relative to precision ag equipment. They are transferable skills that can be capitalized on. It's just a matter of helping them become familiar with farm equipment,” says Eric Spell, president of AgCareers.com. “Part of our relationship with Ag Warriors is to help expose exiting military men and women to the careers in precision agriculture.”

The program is being developed by four California educational institutions in conjunction with the International Agri-Center in Tulare.

“We believe the agricultural community is well suited to provide jobs to returning veterans,” says Jerry Sinift, CEO of the International Agri-Center. “Many of our friends in agriculture have expressed a need for bright, motivated, and hardworking individuals to join their teams. Ag Warriors will be the conduit that connects employers with veterans in search of careers in agriculture.”

How Will You be Served?

Terry Brase, professor at Kirkwood Community College, realized more than 15 years ago that growing adoption rates of precision ag technology would have a ripple effect throughout agriculture and a specific skill set would be needed to service this equipment. “Maintaining the use of the technology depends on having an adequate amount of tech support available,” he says.

In 2000, the college began offering a program in agricultural geospatial technology, which is similar to one Brase started at Hawkeye Community College. “The growth in the program has been dramatic over the last five years,” says Brase. “Previous to four years ago, the program averaged five students.”

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Since then, the number of students starting each fall has ranged from 20 to 27. Of those students, 15 to 18 have graduated each year. “The first eight years, about 30 students graduated from the program. In the past four years, approximately 45 have graduated,” he says.

The college works with an advisory board to review courses and to provide technology updates and direction for class content. “We also work with individual companies indirectly, in many cases with former students,” adds Brase. “Trimble has been very good to work with. And recently, an equipment manufacturer requested a meeting to review our program and to offer equipment and software. Companies see the value of providing software and hardware to assist students with hands-on experiences.”

Former students working as tech support tell Brase how important it is to work with farmers one-on-one. “Although there are farmers who understand the technology very well, there are many who prefer to rely on the technical support offered by the dealership,” he says. “That is the value of these students to the industry – providing a core of people who understand the technology.” 

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