It’s not every day that this reporter walks into the office of a precision ag dealer, sits across from the owner at his component-strewn desk, and the first words spoken are, “I’m not sure what you’re going to get out of this because, well, we don’t really sell precision ag.”
That’s because Integrity Ag Group (IAG), is so far removed from the stereotypical precision ag dealership that the Almo, KY-based company might as well be in some distant land only heard about in songs and fables. Sure, they sell and service Ag Leader, 360 Yield Center, Vanguard, Martin-Till/Yetter, and Farmobile among other companies and products. They rebuild planters and trick up sprayers with displays and the like, as well as own and sell subscriptions on the local DigiFarm RTK network.
But that’s really where the similarities end. Relatively speaking, this ain’t your father’s precision ag business, brother!
What makes IAG perhaps unlike any outfit PrecisionAg® Professional has studied starts at the top, with Managing Partners Heath Conklin and Michael Rushing, and trickles throughout the staff like a gently bubbling mountain stream. To fully appreciate the why and how of just how IAG goes to market, it’s important to understand the forces that drive the gritty Conklin, a self-described “square peg in a round hole” who uprooted his family five years ago and came to Western Kentucky in search of redemption after battling a serious opiate addiction back on the farm near his hometown outside Columbus, OH.
“Those life lessons, they taught me a whole lot about serving others. Precision ag, it always kind of just made sense to me,” Conklin fondly says, surrounded by his IAG family in the cluttered break room, where the crew breaks bread daily. “It’s a lot like how a trained baseball player can hit a fastball. They track the spin on the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, that sort of thing. Precision ag is a lot like that. It’s not drinking water through a fire hose, it slows everything down.”
So, what is it that makes Conklin and Rushing different from other precision ag service providers?
People First at Every Level
You get the sense from speaking with his partners that some of Conklin’s past experiences have greatly shaped how the company views the role of people — employees, growers, everybody — in precision agriculture. Having received his share of grace and forgiveness from folks while at his lowest of lows, people remain the singular focus of everything at IAG. “We’re not in the precision ag business, we’re not in the hardware business, we’re in the people business,” Conklin says. “Technology doesn’t remove people from the equation; in our minds it actually increases their value.”
Having visited a handful of IAG growers during my day and a half shadowing Conklin and his team, I can attest to the power of IAG’s customer-first service philosophy. The entire group from top to bottom appears just as comfortable working on optimizing a Case IH sprayer for 400-acre tobacco farmers Kody and Mitchell Paschall as they are helping grower Dale Broach plant faster and more accurately with Ag Leader SureDrive and Hydraulic Down Force. “I don’t care what product it is, service is what sells any product,” Conklin says as we depart Furches Farms in his pickup. Lumbering down the dusty country road back to the office, I couldn’t help but think about all the outsiders trying to put the squeeze to this trusted advisor-farmer relationship. I seriously doubt an Amazon or even an established player like Walmart can replicate the tight relationship IAG has with its growers. They’ve taken a people-first business to the extremes, and then some.
Embrace All Opportunities
We’ve heard for years that many ag service providers would like to diversify their expertise to other related industries when possible to hedge against ag economy downturns (like the one we’re mired in now!). For instance, many large, integrated retailers in the Midwest sell petroleum and gasoline, sometimes even pet food/animal feed alongside fertilizer and chemicals as another stream of revenue. In that same vein is IAG’s current side venture, a small parts and components retail business dubbed Precision Farm Supply. The group capitalized on Conklin and Rushing’s experience in tearing apart and revamping electrical components to offer local growers an alternative to going to the local Deere or OEM dealer when a controller or wire harness falters.
“We expand the square peg theory here by thinking: Let’s not just make it run, let’s make it run sooner,” Conklin says. “Customers don’t want to hear ‘Your cable will be shipped here in a few days or a week.’ Our attitude — and a lot of this starts and ends with Michael — is if we can make something work now, let’s just adapt and overcome.”
Get A Peer Group
An important tool in the evolution of IAG’s business model are the peer groups Conklin attends to network and learn how other similar operations are finding success. Ohio-based ag service providers Tim Norris (Ag Info Tech-Fredericktown) and Dave Scheiderer (Integrated Ag Services-Woodstock) are among peer group members Conklin considers mentors, and no doubt some of the things he’s picked up from the peer group have allowed IAG to be right up against its five-year goal of eclipsing $2 million in annual sales with more than two years until the deadline. Ed Kasper of Kasper Ag Solutions in Poplar Grove, IL, was another service provider in Conklin’s peer group who we had the pleasure of meeting during our time in Kentucky.
“The planter of the future is becoming a very specific, high-performance, specialty piece of equipment,” the loquacious Kasper says when I ask why one goes to a place like IAG over the local Deere dealer. “Are you really going to go to Joe Blow OEM Dealer for high-performance-specific components? No, you’re not. You’re going to go to a high-performance shop. That’s kind of where I see us and Heath in the next four or five years. We are the high-performance shop, we’re not for everybody.”
Staff Up And Show Out
Conklin is the first and only precision ag professional I’ve met that has told me staffing his business is not a challenge in the least. Much of that is a credit to how IAG is structured. Official business titles are largely eschewed (“All Indians, no chiefs” is what Conklin and Rushing told me over BBQ my first night in Almo). Specialized interests are somewhat encouraged (Rushing, a marketing grad, is the group’s in-house marketing wiz), but everyone pitches in on virtually all aspects of the business. It’s not uncommon to see Conklin or Rushing out in the field working on a grower’s planter in the 90-degree Kentucky heat alongside Field Operations Manager Dakota Montgomery. “We don’t micromanage. You have to have a real sense of get-up-and-go motivation to work here,” Conklin says. “We’ve never posted a job opening yet at IAG because we know what we’re looking for, and we don’t settle for anything less. It’s a relationship business first and foremost.”
Local Education Partner
A tight-knit relationship with the Hutson School of Agriculture at nearby Murray State University allows IAG to recruit top-notch prospects immediately after graduation. It isn’t necessarily the Summa Cum Laude agronomy degree whiz kids from Iowa State University that Conklin/Rushing and team are looking for.
“You can come in with a nursing degree for all I care. I don’t really care what you know or don’t know about precision ag,” Conklin says. “If you’ve got that base knowledge, then great. But we’re looking for strong business and general ethics. Our organization runs on everyone being autonomous and accountable to each other. We can teach the X’s and O’s.”
Dr. Brian Hoover heads up the precision program at Murray State. He characterizes the relationship between the two entities as give-and-take. Conklin gets his top students as new employees, and Hoover gets to expose his students to real-world precision ag before they hit the fields as professionals. “We don’t want our students to just listen to me talk all semester,” Hoover says.
Not One Size Fits All
Last but not least is the main aspect of IAGs business philosophy that works with growers: Its focus on serving growers individually vs. drawing up a couple of different corporate service plans and holding growers to whatever service tier they purchase. I’d characterize IAG’s approach as a bit more holistic than what we typically see in Corn and Bean Country. A lot of that is a result of the type of grower IAG typically interacts with. With a target market that Conklin characterizes as “the 500- to 1,500/2,000-acre farmers,” the group knows its strengths as well as it knows its limitations. It’s not afraid to send a guy who might not fit them or their organizational philosophy to the competition. “If that sandbox is full, we have no problem sending them to the competition. Those 500- to 1,500-acre guys, those guys are loyal as all hell, and we can usually make the biggest impact for guys that size.”