Q&A: Jason Webster, lead commercial agronomist at Precision Planting
Whether it’s relentlessly challenging the agronomic status quo, or trying to wrestle control from the extreme and unruly forces of nature, Jason Webster has a lot on his mind.
Webster is the lead commercial agronomist at Precision Planting, and acts as the key researcher and educator for Precision Planting. Part of his job is managing the Precision Technology Institute (PTI) farm, a 400-acre on-farm research site where his team tests hundreds of different agronomy trials.
During the summer months, Precision Planting invites growers to the farm where Webster leads “Agronomy 101.” This class is a chance for Precision Planting to showcase the products and technology it’s testing and talk to farmers about their practices and what they can do to improve.
SF: Tell me about your background in agriculture and agronomy.
JW: I grew up on a tractor watching my father and grandfather farm, and I knew it was something that I always wanted to do. I actually had the opportunity to start farming as a junior in high school; that was back in 1988. We’ve been doing it ever since, so 2022 will be my 35th year of farming, growing mainly corn and soybeans in Livingston and counties in Illinois.
We’ve been trying to farm our family farming operation — and then work with Precision Planting on the research farm — just trying to continue to challenge the status quo of trying to be better at farming, to increase yields, and most importantly, seeing what we can do to increase farm profitability.
SF: Working on your family farm and with Precision Planting, are there things you try on one farm that you implement on another? What’s the overlap between the two?
JW: Pretty much everything is a test farm on our family farm, and it takes time, and it slows us down a little bit, but we’re just continuing to try to test different things.
Every farm is just a little bit different. It may be because the soils are different and they respond differently and we’re trying to test different things, but every farm is different and has its own set of testing on it. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Precision Planting PTI farm, or it’s our own home farming operation with each individual field that we farm.
SF: Tell me more about your involvement with the PTI Farm and its origin?
JW: When I started with Precision Planting, we knew we wanted to bolster the on-farm research efforts, but it was originally going to be on my own farming operation. We were going to develop all of our research trials there, but we had a kind of a vision of the perfect research farm.
Everything kind of came together where we had this 400-acre piece of land available to us to do testing on. This is where we wanted to develop an area, our research forum, where we could study hundreds of agronomy trials at the same time, showcase Precision Planting products, and technology, and invite growers in to talk about challenges they have on their farm. Then hopefully, with the research we do here at the PTI farm, we can have a solution for them, or try to develop a solution for them. It developed into what we wanted as the perfect research farm, because it also involves an experience for growers.
One of the things I found as I was growing up, watching my grandfather and father farm, was “How in the world do the farmers go out and test different equipment to understand if it’s what they really need for their farm?” What I realized was they have to go out and buy the equipment in order to figure out if they like it, and if it’s something they really want on their farm. What we wanted to do at the PTI farm was to have all the agronomy trials here to understand what technology is available and how we’re using it, but we also wanted to give them the experience to use it themselves.
This farm has what we call a “ride and drive” area. I affectionately call it “the sandbox,” because it’s an area where we just bring in equipment, give farmers the keys to tractors that have planters behind it, and we say, “Let’s go plant corn.” So in the middle of July, August, and September, every day here at the PTI farm when growers come visit us, farmers are planting corn so they can understand all the products and the technology on that planter and they can experience it. It’s that demonstration, that ride and drive, to really understand if it’s something they need on their farm.
SF: When you’re planting that much corn on the PTI farm every single day, what happens to the seeds and crops?
JW: It’s a challenge because we want the field to be fresh every day for a new set of growers coming in. We work with seed companies to get lower quality seed that don’t have the germ normally used, so we have fewer plants coming up per acre. We do some tillage, and we start over again. Most of the time though, with GPS and auto steer on the tractor, we’re planting down the same row multiple times. If the crop does germinate and emerge, we basically take it out with the new planting that occurs every single day.
We want a fresh environment every day for these growers to simulate seedbed conditions that they would have on their farm. It’s extra management, and we do have to work a little harder to make sure that occurs every day.
SF: It seems like you really enjoy getting directly involved with your work. What is the furthest you’ve gone out of your way, or maybe the most uncomfortable you’ve gotten, for the sake of your work?
JW: Oh boy. Well, we’re definitely passionate about our work, and the agronomy we’re doing. Probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever gotten was a project we worked on called multi-genetic planting. As a farmer myself, I saw how soil variability on my own farm affected decisions like seed or genetics that I could plant.
What would happen is as I’m planting my fields, I’m saying: “OK, in that planter, the seed I’ve loaded in it, is it the most appropriate genetics or seed for the acre that I’m planting right now?”
A lot of times the answer was no. [He laughs.] As soil variability increased in a given field, the answer was no a large part of the time. We had a mission to really study the feasibility or the ability to change corn, soybean hybrids, or varieties on the fly, based on the productivity of the soils on the farm. This technology was not available. We went to every planter company and said, “Hey, we’d like a planter to do this.” And they said, “Well, good luck. There’s nothing like this available.”
We had to study the concept of it in the field to see if it could even work. This took time, and it was expensive. This was an expense that I had to take on my own home farm to really play around with to see if it was something growers could actually implement on their farm to increase yields and make money, and then ultimately become available in the marketplace.
SF: The COVID pandemic has changed a lot in the world, directly and indirectly. Have you noticed any trends affecting agronomy?
JW: I think COVID mainly affected the field of agronomy in supply issues and price increases of equipment, parts, fertilizer, and other crop inputs. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to ramp supply back up to maybe offset some of these challenges and normalize again.
SF: How have you and other farmers responded to these changes?
JW: It’s definitely forced us to tighten the belt and understand what we actually need. We’re seeing the highest prices we’ve ever seen with fertilizer. Now it’s understanding what type of fertility we have as a baseline in every single field we farm. How do we become efficient so we can offset these high prices? That’s going to affect the rate of fertilizer we’re applying and the placement of it to be very efficient.
This is challenging the status quo, this is where it gets uncomfortable for growers, because they’ve never had to work this way. Now higher prices are affecting farm profitability. Guys are having to take a look at this and say, “OK, what do I need to do to save money, but not lose yield and increase profits?” It’s really interesting to watch, and we have this discussion every day at the farm.
SF: If there’s one thing I know about farmers, it’s that they’re resilient. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next few years, but it sounds like most of them will be able to handle it.
JW: Yeah, I think so. And hopefully things will normalize again. But you’re right. I think farmers are resilient and it forces them to change. I know thinking about change is uncomfortable for a lot of growers, but change can be a good thing and actually can make you be a better farmer.
SF: Speaking of change, another force affecting the agriculture industry is climate change. Can you tell me how that’s affected your work now and what you see the next few years looking like for your field?
JW: We know as farmers we can’t control the weather, and I quickly realized that my first year farming in 1988, one of the largest droughts in history. I saw firsthand how I have very little control over the weather and I just can't do anything about it. We consider climate change to be part of a risk to a grower or a farmer. At the PTI farm, what we do is we study how to mitigate risk of changing weather patterns. How do we limit that risk, how do we limit yield reduction as a result and not let productivity or profitability suffer?
What I mean by this is there are extensive ways of educating growers on fertility management, primarily split applications of nutrients, and we do this to limit nutrient loss and runoff. With climate change, we see events of the extremes. It’s either way too much rain at one given time, or it’s extreme drought. It’s just very extreme from one end to the other. If a grower’s putting all this nitrogen on in one application and we get a large rainfall, we’re at risk to lose that. Environmentally, that’s not a great thing either. We spend a lot of time talking with growers about how to manage risk when applying nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium.
As growers, and as a farmer myself, we need to be ready for it and have the flexibility of managing these variables. We work hard at the PTI farm to show ways to manage soil drainage. We show the benefits of tile drainage — what it costs, the return on investment — so when you get those large drain events, we have a system in place that can get rid of the excess water, introduce oxygen back into the soil, and we don’t slow that crop down one single bit. We can control this. We can take control of the weather by having this drainage ability.
SF: What do you see as the next big thing in agronomy?
JW: We’ll continue to measure. If we don’t measure, we have no idea where we are, and if we need to be better or not. I think seeing what is happening in a grower’s field, and managing it to the inch with this measurement, is going to be the ultimate technology going forward.
We need technology that can continue to have eyes of vision so we can see more in the field. We’re going to see pests or problems that growers face each and every year. I’ve said for a long time that crop scouting is probably the No. 1 problem we have in the ag industry. No one wants to do it, or nobody’s good enough at doing it to really understand all of the problems in a field — to measure, to react, and take control.
I think intelligence in the form of technology is going to be the next big thing in agronomy. It’s one of the things I think about every single day as we’re scouting fields and trying to figure out, “What can we give to this crop to make it respond to us, to get more yield, to get more bushels?” It’s almost like listening to the heartbeat of a plant. When we go to the hospital, they can hook us up to a machine and figure out what’s wrong. How do we do that to a crop?
I don’t know if it’s gonna be the next big thing in agronomy, but I know it’s the thing I need with agronomy. We’ve mentioned it numerous times here in this conversation: taking control. That’s the thing we want, but we have to have good information. We have got to measure it, know where we’re at on the yardstick, and then we can react.
SF: You made the distinction of what “I need with agronomy.” Is there anything you're doing that you wish that you saw other agronomists doing?
JW: I think more data and more research. Part of the reason we test things on the PTI farm is because I don’t have data. I can’t go out and get the data to understand if the concept of the technology is a good concept. So we do it here. We get firsthand data, firsthand experience, firsthand knowledge with it because we don’t have access to it anywhere else. So I wish there were more data out there. Some of it we struggle on and we just attack it. We go after it ourselves and we go get it.
SF: What about your job keeps you awake at night?
JW: Probably the biggest thing is just staying new, fresh, and unique when it comes to the PTI farm. We get growers coming in from all over the country, all over the world to see the things that we’re working on. One of the things that I just ultimately have to have at this farm are new concepts. We’ve got to be thinking outside the box at times, and that’s challenging. What is that new idea or new concept? What turns the light bulb on in a farmer’s brain, thinking about his operation and how that can be better?
I don't want a grower to say “You know what? I went to the PTI farm the last year or two. I don’t have to go again because it’s the same thing.” I have got to have new, fresh, unique ideas at this farm and just continue to keep thinking outside the box.
SF: What gets you up in the morning? What drives you every single day?
JW: It’s fun to wake up in the morning because we’re going to go back to a job we just simply have fun with. You know what they say, if you love your job and you’re having fun doing it, it’s not really a job. I think we live that every day. We’ve been given the opportunity to farm and we love doing it, and we have the extended opportunity to work with growers day in and day out. Most days we don’t even know what day of the week it is, because it doesn’t matter. We’re doing the same thing. We can’t wait to get up and do it all over again.