THE TASK SEEMED simple enough. Roger and Armin Blanken from Kansas wanted a way to geo-reference crop fields. Roger, an insurance agent, needed the documentation for clients. Armin, a crop producer, wanted a record of where he applied chemicals.

So the two brothers invested in the technology to do it. They bought a Compaq iPAQ handheld computer and loaded it with Farm Works mapping software. Then each brother bought his own Global Positioning System (GPS) unit to get the latitudes and longitudes of field locations. “I bought a Trimble unit,” Roger says. “Armin bought an Outback.”

But there was a problem. They couldn't get either of the GPS units to talk to the iPAQ computer. And after a year of trying, they gave up.

“I had called Farm Works and worked with them and got to a place where they couldn't help me anymore,” Roger recalls.

So Armin loaded all of the components into his pickup truck, drove across the state to Inman, KS, and dropped off the parts at the farm of Lorra Martens, a technology consultant whom Roger met at a farm show in Salina. “He just took all the stuff down there and let her try to figure it out because we gave up,” Roger says.

Lorra and her husband Jim installed the proper cabling and changed the GPS settings to connect all the components and get them to work together. Several hours later Armin came and picked them up. “It works,” Roger says.

Computer crazed

The Blankens are not alone in their struggles. As more computer and satellite technologies are being made for the farm, more farmers are buying it to collect the information they need to stay competitive. Up to 40% of Midwest farmers use some aspect of precision farming technology, according to Pierre Robert, professor and director of the Precision Ag Center at the University of Minnesota.

However, not all the products are made by the same manufacturer. And once buyers get them home, they often have a hard time getting the different components to work together.

“My husband said, ‘How in the world do normal people do this with all the cabling and different components?’” consultant Lorra Martens says. “For example, you buy an iPAQ handheld and expect your GPS antenna to fit right into it with the cable provided. Well it won't. You have to buy another cable that will go into the bottom of the iPAQ that will hook into the antenna wire. And then you need to figure out whether the cable needs to be a null-modem or regular cable.”

No universal standard

Here's the problem. The computer and precision farming industries are still relatively new (see “Technology timeline”). And no universal standard has been developed that ensures all manufacturers' products can work together, according to Mick Johnston, technology consultant with The Consulting Company (TCC).

“Unfortunately the brands have not been willing to work together to form integration,” Johnston says. “It is almost a war.”

A similar situation existed 20 years ago in the hydraulics industry, when hydraulic fittings on farm equipment varied by make and model. Farmers had to buy a variety of adapters to make them work before the industry came out with a universal standard. “Now we are in the same quagmire with computer hardware, software and data,” Johnston says.

Even if there were a universal standard, the technology itself is difficult to learn. And getting multiple products to work together takes time and training.

As a result of these problems, buyers like the Blankens, having exhausted their tutorials and company help desks, are looking for an independent technology consultant who can troubleshoot the problems.

This type of consultant is not the traditional company reps you call on the phone after buying their product. Although they can be helpful, their knowledge is sometimes limited to the brands they sell.

Rather, the expert being sought today is typically independent and unbiased, knows about a wide range of hardware and software products, and knows how the different brands can work together.

“We know how these software packages work, and we can make them talk to one another,” says Robert Mehrle, owner of Agricultural Information Management and Mid-South Ag Data and CFO of the American Society of Agricultural Consultants.

Mehrle and other consultants like him are the people you can call long after your product warranty has expired. They will help you in person or over the phone. And instead of just selling product, they ask a lot of questions to figure out your needs.

“I start by asking, Do you run a yield monitor or plan to run one?” says Shannon Roder, owner of Roder Seed and Software and a Farm Works dealer. “Are you looking for a mapping program to make your own maps on a desktop computer? Do you want to do your own soil tests? If yes, then I know they need a handheld computer and mapping software, for instance.”

Another question Roder asks is whether the customer wants to track the costs of inputs applied or wants just a history of what was done to each field. He says Farm Works has a module that tracks both the quantity of inputs applied and the cost of those inputs by field or by enterprise, all in one package.

“To me, you need to add the accounting to make it a full package,” Roder says. “So I ask about the future, because with Farm Works you can have both record keeping and accounting. And you can add the Farm Site program, so you can make your own application maps.”

Hard to find

The problem is, technology consultants are hard to find. Most consultants come from industry backgrounds. And because the precision farming industry is still relatively young, few people have left it to go on to become full-time consultants. Those who have left typically do not advertise.

Up until now farmers have relied on local farm input dealers to meet their technology needs, says TCC's Johnston. “The industry has done its best to fill the void,” he says. But their services are typically value added and tied to the products they sell.

If what you need is strictly technological advice without having to buy a product, you may need to look beyond these traditional sources for help (see “Who to call”).

Services to expect

Technology consultants offer a range of services — from straight consulting to analyzing the data you collect with your computer and satellite technology. Other services may include product selection, product installation, troubleshooting, mapping and record keeping.

Some even cross over into crop consulting, using the data you collect to help make management decisions about your farm. For example, TCC offers a season-long program called PIMS in addition to straight consulting. “In the spring, we help the grower design a cropping plan, set up their software, and assist in training their people,” Johnston says. “In summer, we evaluate the crops. In fall, we walk them through setting up yield monitors and make sure everyone knows how to run them. Then we process that data with them and present results, which we use to evaluate the spring input decisions and build a plan for the next year's crops.”

In addition to consulting, many consultants also sell product. But if they are good consultants, their advice will not be limited to one brand, according to Mehrle. “First thing you should ask is, ‘Are you also selling product?’” he advises. “And if they do, like I do, and if they are up front, they will say, ‘Yes, this is what I sell, but I will tell you what I know about other brands and products too for your situation.’”

Costs will vary according to the service. And there are various fee structures, ranging from per acre or per hour to a flat annual fee. A typical flat hourly fee may range from $50 to $100 or more. Some consultants work on a retainer to answer questions throughout the year at a rate of $300 to $500 a year.

Choose wisely

Once you find a consultant, you'll want to know whether he or she is a good one. Because the field is still relatively new, there has not been a technology consultant training or degree program offered until the last two to three years, according to Johnston. As a result, he says, a consultant without a degree or license may still be skilled.

Johnston says you should look for a consultant who is independent. In other words, he or she should not sell a single brand or piece of equipment and the individual should have contacts within the industry, offer support in understanding the different software and hardware brands, and be willing to work with local vendors of hardware and software.

“For example, we will talk with a grower and come up with equipment solutions,” Johnston explains. “But if they have a local vendor who sells that equipment, we want them to buy it from them because the local vendor is going to be able to help us help them support the grower. And that is the best of both worlds.”

He also says you should look for someone who offers a well-rounded base of services and is flexible enough to meet your business needs.

AIM's Mehrle says, when shopping for a consultant, always ask for references. And find out if they are members of professional organizations.

Martens Farms' Lorra Martens says to look for one who asks a lot of questions to figure out your needs. And as a test of a consultant's knowledge, she says to ask these questions: “If I have this product, what type of product or brand can I use with it? Or, I need to put this product and this one together. Will it work? Or, I want to get to started with a lightbar system that eventually I want to move in with my yield monitor. Will my lightbar system be able to work with my yield monitor?

“If they take a 110 antenna off the Trimble E-Z system, for example, and try to move it to a yield monitor, it won't work unless they have the right Ag Leader cable,” Martens explains. “So that would be a good test to see if they know their stuff.”

Technology timeline

1989-90

Onset of the home personal computer.

1991

Home farm accounting software takes hold.

1993

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology hits agriculture. Precision farming equipment sold by small aftermarket companies.

Mid to late 90s

Peak in precision farming equipment sales.

1996

Precision farming equipment is factory equipped on tractors and combines. Leads to incompatibility among products for buyers who are not brand loyal.

1997

Computer experts leave aftermarket companies to work for major manufacturers, leaving knowledge void in marketplace.

1998

Market points to need for independent technology consultants.

1999

Handheld computers with GPS hits the market starting with Farm Works Site Mate.

2000

Lightbars and high-end GPS (RTK).

2002

Autosteer from BeeLine, John Deere, Trimble and Raven is available factory direct on farm equipment.

Do you need a technology consultant?

If you're wondering whether to hire a technology consultant, ask yourself the following questions. Answering yes to one or more shows you stand to benefit.

  • Do you own precision ag equipment?

  • Do you have multiple brands of hardware, software, GPS and GIS equipment that you are having a hard time getting to work together?

  • Do you want to know what brands of hardware and software will work together?

  • Are you a professional grower with a large number of acres who is buying equipment on a regular basis and trying to manage vast amounts of data to make decisions?

  • Do you have multiple pieces of equipment and are you trading on a regular basis?

  • Do you have problems in understanding how data and information can work together?

  • Have you invested in services and received data without understanding how to make decisions from the information?

  • Have you invested in equipment and services, implemented those recommendations and ended up spending more money than you would have before you started?

  • Are you implementing management decisions on your farming operation but don't know the outcome of those decisions to revise your operation in years to come?

  • Have you purchased techno toys but never understood how to put them into practice on your farming operation?

  • If you bought technical equipment, did the people who sold it either lack the services or charge you to set it up?

Source: Mick Johnston, The Consulting Company

Who to call

These technology consultants are by no means the only ones available, but this list will give you a place to start looking for one. To find out more, contact the American Society of Agricultural Consultants, in Denver, CO, 303/759-5091, visit www.agconsultants.org or asac@agri-associations.org.

The Consulting Company (TCC)

Independent, nationwide consulting company that focuses on the large-acreage grower. Works with local hardware and software vendors to service grower. Offers wide range of services based on Personal Information Management System (PIMS) available in two levels:

Gold: Season-long program. Works with grower to gather production information and interpret results in an understandable package for quick understanding for the next year's decisions. Includes consulting, software and hardware planning, setup, data collection, data analysis, and recommendations. Also includes crop consulting, soil sampling and mapping.

Silver: Includes consulting, software and hardware setup, and data processing and analysis.

Cost: $300 to 500/yr. for consulting without services; cost goes to per-acre basis with PIMS Gold and Silver services.

Contact TCC, Dept. FIN, Box 215, DeWitt, IA 52742,563/659-9777, visit www.pimsgold.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Martens Farms

Independent consultant, product reseller and Farm Works software dealer.

Services: Consulting and troubleshooting, hardware and software selection, individual training, data importing, data mapping, record keeping and product sales.

Products sold: Farm Works, Trimble, Ag Leader, Transplant, Navman, Raven, Compaq iPAQ

Cost: $50/hr. in person; $45/hr. over phone.

Contact Lorra and Jim Martens, Dept. FIN, 539 Buckskin Rd., Inman, KS 67546, 620/585-6761, visit www.123farmworks.com, www.martensfarms.com, free productinfo.net/fin.

Agricultural Information Management (AIM)

Independent consulting company and product reseller of GPS equipment, yield monitors, computer hardware and software, guidance systems and related components.

Services: Consulting and troubleshooting; hardware and software planning, installation and training; data collection and management; product sales.

Products sold: Trimble GPS equipment (receivers, guidance systems), Ag Leader yield monitors and GPS equipment, Raven GPS equipment, iPAQ and At Works field computers, and ancillary equipment involved in data collection, including mounts and cables; Farm Works software, SST software, Ag Leader's SMS management system software, and Ag Chem's SGIS software.

Mid-South Ag Data

Sister company to AIM that takes the data generated with yield monitors, guidance systems and applications equipment and puts it all together in a context where it can be analyzed. Also makes controller cards and prescription maps for virtually any controller on the market based on collected data.

Services: Data analysis, prescription mapping and variable rate technology.

Cost: $60/hr. office, $80/hr. on site. $175/person for two-day class.

Contact AIM and Mid-South Ag Data, Dept. FIN, Box 1419, Lambert, MS 38643, 662/326-4442, visit www.aimgps.com, www.midsouthagdata.com, or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Roder Seed and Software

Independent consultant, product reseller and Farm Works dealer.

Services: Consulting and troubleshooting; hardware and software planning, installation and training; product sales.

Products sold: Farm Works software (Trac Plus, Farm Site, Farm Funds, Farm Stock, Site Pro, Guide Mate lightbar for handheld unit, Trac Mate, Site Mate, Site Mate Basic, Site Mate scouting, and Site Mate VRA and Stock Mate); FMS software, Ag Leader yield monitors, and Raven lightbars and GPS units.

Cost: $50/hr.

Contact Shannon Roder, Dept. FIN, 4463 200 Ave., Marathon, IA 50565, 712/289-6162, visit www.shannonroder.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.