Frenchman Valley Cooperative: Lessons Learned, Lessons Applied in Precision Agriculture

In the stone-cold world of business, corporate consolidation often delivers a one-two punch of personal challenge and unique opportunity for those caught in its crosshairs. Jeff Wessels, a veteran of more than 30 years in ag retail, all within the borders of western Nebraska, found himself weighing his options in the summer of 2017 — he left his position at Nutrien (then CPS) in Arapahoe a year after its acquisition of Cargill’s retail division.

Frenchman Valley Cooperative: Lessons Learned, Lessons Applied in Precision Agriculture

Jeff Wessels, Frenchman Valley Cooperative

With more than three decades of retail experience, including 20 years working in and managing precision programs, Wessels had a lot to offer. And opportunity soon came knocking — a chance to build on an existing agronomic services program called Acre+ at Frenchman Valley Cooperative (FVC), with headquarters based in Imperial, NE.

A self-described science and math nerd with a distaste for status quo, Wessels joined FVC last January and spent his first year implementing some new programs and disciplines to set the Acre+ program on a course for growth. He also got support from the top: “My supervisor doesn’t necessarily understand all the technology, but he’s a believer in its importance for building customer loyalty and improving service,” Wessels says.

Early Learnings

The number of precision pioneers still active in agriculture who cut their teeth working with some of the earliest technology releases dwindles a bit every year. Wessels, who received the first color version of the Falcon 2 field computer back in the late 1990s from Ag Chem Equipment (later acquired by AGCO) for dry spreader machines, qualifies as someone who’s endured the market ups and downs, and scooped up a lot of lessons along the way.

Wessels was working for TriCo Farm Services at the time, then the largest independent organization in Nebraska. It was a place that embraced the flood of technology entering the market, and provided Wessels with lots of opportunity for experimentation with technology and techniques.

One of the important lessons was the importance of regular customer interaction, not only to gauge current satisfaction about services but to understand what their “hopes and dreams” are for the farm land they cultivate.

One early example that really began Wessels’ precision experience: “The owner of TriCo at the time noted that a farmer-customer was going to start yield mapping in the fall, and he told me to go figure out how we were going to make the maps,” Wessels says. “I headed to Husker Harvest Days and started asking questions, and purchased a mapping software program, and that was really how we got into precision.”

There were many other experiences and lessons along the way, but the bottom line was always working to earn the customer’s loyalty with excellent service. “I wanted to make sure that we were better than everybody else,” Wessels says. “And I don’t mean that we just wanted to win, I mean that we actually wanted to offer the best value and service that we could for the customer, to continuously learn, and think outside the box.”

Relative to the big regional and national retail organizations, TriCo was a fairly nimble and entrepreneurial organization. So it was a bit of culture shock for Wessels when Cargill acquired TriCo in 1997. That said, the discipline of working under a larger, more regimented corporate structure provided additional resources and led to the development of a more organized precision offering. For example, Wessels got his hands on early Soilection variable-rate application rigs to put through its paces.

Frenchman Valley Cooperative: Lessons Learned, Lessons Applied in Precision Agriculture

This ATV-turned-mini sprayer supports field research projects for Frenchman Valley Cooperative.

Cargill resources also allowed Wessels to work on a research project with Case IH that provided deep experience in developing research plots for fertility and seeding, introduced him to advancing satellite imagery, and helped him work out fertility and soil pH recommendation regimens that were demonstrating solid payback for farmer-customers.

“The programs were very beneficial to the customer, and we built the program up to where we were grid soil sampling anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 acres a year,” Wessels says. “We were custom applying variable-rate fertilizer on roughly 150,000 to 190,000 acres a year.”

During his time at Cargill he continued to hone his zone approach to field management, using soil type zone information to set sampling points, create seed and fertililty recommendations, and evaluate the harvest.

The Next Chapter

Wessels was entertaining new opportunities at the end of 2017 when he began talking with FVC about its precision program. “I recalled that they had started their precision program about the same time as we had with Cargill, but they took a different direction and it kind of faded away,” he recalls. “They told me they wanted to rebuild the precision program, and our vice president of agronomy, Ben Sauder, was committed to bringing in the right people and clearing the way for it to succeed.”

Frenchman Valley Cooperative: Lessons Learned, Lessons Applied in Precision Agriculture

Wessels and his precision-focused colleagues work closely with FVC agronomists like Adam Hayward (seated) on integrating precision offerings.

Wessels hit the ground running, starting with the agronomy software program. The goal was two-fold.

“Our territory covers western Nebraska up to Wheatland, WY, and covers a 300-mile geography, so it was critical for us to work on a cloud-based platform,” Wessels says, citing another lesson learned while at Cargill. Wessels also wanted a software solution that would provide a dashboard interface that would allow farmers to view and interact with field data. They ended up choosing the FieldAytics program from EFC Systems, which they spent time implementing through 2018.

Wessels also began working on the sales team mindset. “I’m trying to get the sales team to communicate with farmers, ask the questions, and try to find the real challenges they are dealing with,” Wessels says. “From there we can discuss the solutions we can provide — as I said, we want to help the farmers be genuinely better at farming, including how precision agriculture equates to a more environmentally sound approach to crop production. I don’t think we currently do a good job of being advocates for precision agriculture to improve stewardship.

“My personal opinion is that every single farmer customer can benefit from precision agriculture regardless of what technology they possess or what expertise they have,” Wessels says. “When you’re talking with growers about their fields, you can start conversations about targeting fertilizer where it can have the most benefit, and taking the next step into zone management.” And, he adds, “Never assume that they don’t want to do something in precision — you have to explain your solutions and what you can do, because if we don’t, our competitor will.”

Wessels manages a four-member Acre+ support team, which provides support to Agronomy Production Advisors (APAs) who are the first point of contact with farmers out of FVC agronomy locations. The Acre+ team has been conducting presentations with APAs for farmer customers, answering specific questions, and making suggestions about precision-based field management approaches through the seasonal consultation process.

Nurturing this Acre+ team and setting a clear course of development has allowed Wessels more time for big-picture planning and the development of more innovative precision offerings for FVC customers.

In the end, FVC’s approach to precision is about building trust and loyalty with customers that is a foundation for all the business it does with customers, and not a truly independent profit center. By being flexible and customer-responsive, Wessels believes FVC can help farmers optimize operations while also strengthening the total business of the cooperative.

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