National retail organization Wilbur-Ellis Co. has historically focused on using ag technology and precision practices to improve efficiency and service to growers. In recent years, it invested significant resources into developing a program called AgVerdict, which is helping to connect each local outlet with its grower customers. Along with a strong service regimen, AgVerdict provides a web platform that allows growers extensive access to data, analysis, and decisionmaking tools.
We recently caught up with Jerry Coupe, director of information management solutions, and Jason Ellsworth, AgVerdict product manager, about current and future plans for the program.
How did AgVerdict come about?
Wilbur-Ellis: For precision ag and data management we started using a package called AgFleet several years ago, but there were some very specific things that we wanted to do, so we decided to go our own route. AgVerdict was put together in conjunction with two companies: Agrian for label-checking and some record keeping needs, and Ag Junction for site-specific and telematics.
In developing AgVerdict there were three different market areas we were interested in addressing. The California and any fresh produce market features a lot of regulations and reporting requirement at both the state and county level. Then we have the more traditional recordkeeping and spatial precision agriculture side, and third, the telematics – communicating to the controllers, equipment, and staff. We feel we have put together a solid product that we intend to improve each year. We want to get our customers on it and using it in their businesses, and we want to use it to improve our efficiency and level of service.
One of the really important functions we needed was an enterprise tool that we could administer on a national level and maintain centralized control, while providing usability at the field level. Another critical function is the ability to roll up information across branches and regional geographies and view it on a national level. At the International Conference on Precision Agriculture this past July, data management and “big data” was the hot topic.
What sort of data are you interested in collecting and analyzing?
W-E: If you look at the Midwest, they are interested in fertility and variety-specific populations. Those are not prevalent in California, where precision is less supported. Information on tank mixes and product uses is another big area, as is what we call the “total nutrition system.”
We’re trying to better understand what Monsanto and some of the other companies are doing with fine tuning the variety specific and population specific recommendations, so that we can take those and be able to fine tune the fertility side. With all of the industry’s development on the genetic side, I think we have fallen behind on fertility. There are opportunities for variable-rate application that will be important to focus on, because public universities are not doing it to the degree they did in the past. I think you will see more grower programs like Tracy Blackmer’s Iowa OnFarm Network that help us improve our understanding of variety performance and fertility.
Are growers getting the message that a focus on fertility is critical?
W-E: I don’t think it is understood. Some do but very localized. The marketing has been so much on genetics and pest issues that we have not focused as clearly on fertility as we need to. On our end, one of the things that we have not had is a good way of managing all the information.
How do grower customers sign on with AgVerdict?
W-E: Growers work through the local Wilbur-Ellis outlet. Where AgVerdict is available, the outlet will have access to a person called the field technology specialist. We are actually training and filling those positions all the time. It’s important to have that local connection.
The services available through AgVerdict include aerial imagery, Veris EC sampling and mapping, traditional soil sampling, and of course variable rate application of seed, fertilizer and crop protection.
All services are administered locally and on a one-on-one basis. It is more and more common for us on the technology side to be working with a son of the farm owner, or somebody else in the office. That individual will be the one actually logging into AgVerdict and using it, while the grower himself will get the reports and records to support decision making.
As you get to the bigger farming organizations, you have more people logging in. But generally it is one or two people in the operation who are logging into AgVerdict.
The one-on-one relationship is important to training and in-field support as well. We have to have the one-on-one contact where the local field technology specialist is helping with things like calibration, answering questions, and then helping the grower feel comfortable with things like uploading data.
This is a cloud-driven product. How are growers receiving technology solutions that reside in the cloud?
W-E: It runs to both extremes when you look at the total customer base, but if the customer we deal with is interested in AgVerdict then they will not have a problem with using some type of cloud service. Most of them have an Android or an iPhone and they are using the computer and are comfortable with that.
They’ve also seen some of the ag programs that are desktop based, and they realize that when they enter all the information on one office based computer that they are limited in how much access they have to data. The importance of being able to get to that data from anywhere is increasing, and a cloud-based system lets anyone with security clearance and an Internet connection have access to that data.
How do you view Monsanto’s new IFS offering?
W-E: Monsanto is a piece of the whole package, and we think it will be a piece that we can bring into our system and make fit quite nicely with the services we want to deliver.
I think that there will be quite a few growers that are going to say no to sending Monsanto data and others will say, “They know the seed so go ahead and let them do the VRA maps.” There are going to be two camps and Wilbur-Ellis will have the tools to accommodate both of them.