Helping Farmers Invest in Technology
Word of mouth can be a powerful marketing tool, especially in a farming community. “Coffee shops are great,” says Ben Flansburg. “My brother, sister, and I started offering grid soil sampling about seven years ago and had about 1,000 acres. The next thing we knew, the neighbor wanted samples taken, and then his neighbor wanted some. Two years later, we were a touch over 20,000 acres.”
It didn’t take long for Ben and his siblings, Chris and Amanda, to realize they were on to something. What started as “dabbling in technology,” quickly turned into a viable business venture. As a result, the trio launched BCA Ag Technologies in 2006, which is located in Oakfield, New York.
“There weren’t any big players in that arena at the time,” Ben recalls. “Based on the increased demand from farmers, we realized this was becoming more than just a part-time thing.”
room to grow
One in five. That’s the number of farmers, Ben says, that on average have some form of technology in their state. “The adopters are a little slower out this way, but it’s gotten better over the years,” he notes. “When it came to adopting technology, New York used to be about five years behind Midwest farmers. That window is shrinking. It’s around two years now.”
While a number of technology companies are at a crossroads these days when it comes to hardware sales, the skill set each of the Flansburgs brings to the business allows them to grow and change with customer demands.
“I am the main manager and I head up all of the precision ag installs, sales, and service,” notes Ben. “Amanda is in charge of marketing and public relations. She also helps deliver product when needed. Chris is head of our agronomy and data management department. He is in charge of all our customers’ data, along with the GPS soil sampling, seed, and chemical sales.”
Today, BCA Ag Technologies handles over 30,000 acres in soil sampling each year and deals with roughly 250 precision agriculture customers.
Initially run out of Ben’s home, the Flansburgs invested in real estate in January 2013 to accommodate their exploding business. They recently added two full-time employees.
“We haven’t hit a plateau yet, which is good and bad,” notes Ben. “We have a business adviser we sit down with every year. We always put together a forecast, but it’s so hard to do because our precision hardware sales are always about 45% higher than the year before. Trying to create budgets and forecasts on those numbers is somewhat unrealistic.”
Continually keeping an eye on industry trends also helps grow their bottom line.
“We joined Soil-Max three years ago and started selling tile plows,” he says.
Because they are the only Soil-Max dealer in the Northeast, that side of the business has done well.
“It takes us quite a ways away from home, but it really started opening more doors as far as precision ag goes,” Ben says. “We explain our business to everyone we meet, but we really don’t want to go soil sampling in Albany. There are other smaller companies that will do it down that way. We’d rather get the precision ag side of their business – it’s what we try to focus on.”
Investing in tech
One of their customers, Peter Zeliff Jr., who farms about 1,100 acres, says there are two things he looks at when investing in technology: the return on investment and anything that increases efficiency. “Because I operate a smaller farm, I always have to be on my A game,” he says.
The Middleport, New York, farmer’s relationship with the Flansburgs began nearly five years ago. “In 2009, I started using precision ag technology for my fertilizer and spraying applications,” he says. “With the cost of fertilizer, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t overapplying. I also wanted to ensure that I was applying efficiently and getting full coverage because of the commodity prices.”
Zeliff believes he recouped his investment on variable rate in the first year.
“A lot of the ground I farm used to be two, three, or even four different fields. Now, it’s just one field with a lot of variable soils,” he says. “I want to make sure I’m getting the inputs in the right place to get the most benefit out of the better soil. Being able to change rates as I go across the field helps me increase my yield on my best ground and lower my costs on the not-so-good ground.”
While he says some of the technology can be a hard thing to calculate an ROI on, the impression it has left made it worth the investment.
“The first year I fertilized using variable rate, it came out almost exactly to the amount I had on the spreader,” Zeliff recalls. “It has definitely helped me get better with fertilizer placement.”
Next on his list was a yield monitor, which came in 2010. “I didn’t know the product well, and I didn’t take the time to utilize everything it had to offer,” he says.
As a result, he didn’t have good data until 2011. “Now, I’m able to capture accurate information and analyze the results a lot better,” he says. “One thing that really amazed me was in one of my soybean fields, the yield monitor showed I was harvesting over 100 bushels per acre in parts of the field. I printed out the yield map and could see a band across the field where that really good yield was. When I first laid the soil type over the yield map, I couldn’t believe how the contour lines of the soil type followed exactly where the yield was. It was wild. I wish I could go buy more of that soil type and spread it in my fields. I can’t do that, but I can maximize my yields on that soil type. Now that I know what that soil type is capable of, I can look for it in other areas. I think that’s where variable-rate planting will really be effective.”
This past year, he invested in auto steering for his planter. “Because I work full time off the farm, I run at night a lot,” he says. “Having auto steer has been a great asset, especially since I have a six-row strip-till machine and a 12-row planter. It’s very important that they measure up.
“I’ve also read where growers have seen an increase of about 5 bushels per acre once they run auto steer in the planter with strip-till,” says Zeliff.
His cost to grow corn is about $3.90 per bushel and around $9 for beans. Average corn yields hover at 150 bushels per acre with beans in the 60s. “Even with corn at $5, auto steer still adds up,” he says.
Yet, Zeliff admits that investing in a second auto steer system wasn’t an easy decision.
“I thought about it for a long time. It was tight making both systems work on my acres,” Zeliff says.
Branching out into custom tiling justified the purchase.
“Starting the tiling business in May 2013 helped make those numbers really work,” he says. “It was about a $20,000 investment. I figured the two systems would pay for themselves in six years.”
Because Zeliff had already started down the Ag Leader path, he was able to get into the tiling business for a lot less.
“I would have had to spend $230,000 to get everything I needed from scratch, but my start-up costs were diminished quite a bit,” he says.
To date, he has placed about 1.4 million feet of tile; he charges about $1 per foot installed, depending on the configuration.
“In the last three or four years, farmers in my area have really gotten serious about tile,” he says.
Much of that interest he attributes to strong commodity prices, but growers are also realizing the benefits.
“One farm I tiled saw how well it worked on the first 40 acres and added another 100,” he says. “Now, they have 600 more acres they want tiled, because much of the ground was too wet to plant last year. They figure it will pay for itself in five years.”
Seed starting point
As a DeKalb Asgrow seed dealer, Zeliff has been told that the yield starts in the seed.
“What I do with it from there – between practices and placement – is up to me,” Zeliff notes. “Tiling is going to be a contributing factor to huge yield increases, and incorporating precision ag technology will push that seed even further. With today’s commodity prices, the technology does pay for itself whether I own 1,000 or 10,000 acres.”
Reaping the benefits from precision ag, Ben believes, doesn’t have to be a high-dollar solution.
“We try to make it as cost effective as possible. We never overshoot things too much, because we know farmers like it simple,” Ben says. “It’s the perfect formula to introduce a farmer to precision ag, and it will likely pay dividends.”