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Cyber Farming

By wmadministrator

When Jim Major’s father passed away in 1982, leaving him and his two brothers as third-generation family farmers, no one in the Major family even owned a personal computer. Over the years, Major Brothers Farms used everything from spiral-bound notebooks to photocopied maps to keep up with land records, chemical usage and other daily record keeping.

Today, though, Major Brothers Farms, located in Hickman near the farthest western tip of Kentucky, has joined the ranks of customers in 28 American states, Brazil and Mexico who use agriculture technologies produced by AgConnections, a nearly decade-old company tucked away in the Lynn Grove community in southwest Calloway County.

Started in 1998 by co-owners Rick Murdock and Pete Clark, AgConnections has progressed from a consulting-only company with one employee to a business that now tallies 75 percent of its revenue from sales of its software and boasts a staff of 22, including 10 dedicated strictly to software development.
“We had a vision of the product we wanted and the place in the marketplace where we saw a gap,” Clark said. “As we cash-flowed the company, we funded the development of the product we have today.”

The main appeal of AgConnections to grower/producers such as Major is its functionality as a complete record-keeping system for farm operations, measuring everything from the amount of chemicals used on a particular field to providing latitude and longitude coordinates via a GIS engine to track production records of multiple fields.

“I’d been on a search for a while for a program that would keep a record of the chemicals we use,” said Major, who admitted that his chemical records would often fall three to four months behind prior to using AgConnections software. “I generally had it all; I just didn’t have it in my notebook in the format that was required. We’ve been extremely impressed with ease of entering the data using this software.”

Calloway County Agriculture Extension Agent Todd Powell believes the record-keeping technology offered by companies such as AgConnections will soon cease being an option and become a necessity for the grower/producer.
“If they’re large farmers, they’re going to have to use technology to grow,” Powell said. “It’s a necessity to manage the best you can.”

Specifically, AgConnections offers Land.db, a software component used for managing crop production records; Hand.db, a software component that operates on Windows Mobile Devices and allows farmers to keep track of records while out in the field; and Land.db Viewer, which allows records to be downloaded by the producer and then accessed both internally and externally.

Even though the company has seen its business increase nearly 400 percent since its first software component was introduced in 2002, AgConnections has preferred to grow its client base at a relatively slow rate, relying on word of mouth over advertising campaigns and keeping product descriptions on its Web site “very vague.”

“We’ve stayed under the radar,” Clark said. “It really wouldn’t be good if 3,000 people called here today. Our goal has always been to under-promise and over-deliver, and we’ve accomplished that thus far as of today. We try to grow what we can service each year.”

Even the location and offices of the business seem to underscore this approach, as AgConnections houses all of its operations in two renovated tobacco barns several miles off of Kentucky 94 W. in Calloway County. The barns, which were owned by Murdock’s family, are now a mixture of high-tech and old tradition, as exposed tier posts run overhead in state-of-the-art conference rooms.

Murdock and Clark first struck up a relationship in the mid-1990s, when both were employed in the ag retail business. Combined with Murdock’s history as a farmer himself, Clark said the duo’s years of hands-on experience allows them to design software that is readily available to those who might not feel up to speed on the latest computer technology.

“The weakness we’ve seen in the marketplace is the products can be so feature-rich and button-rich the user can’t figure out how to use it,” Clark said. “Understanding the ag retail world and ag chemical manufacturers and understanding farming and food processors, that’s our background, and that’s how we understand the product we need to provide. We’re the farmer, the dealer, the chemical manufacturer. We’re not software engineers, but we know when the customer looks at the software what he wants.”

Ease of use has been a major plus for Josh Goodwin, a third-generation farmer in Paducah who works approximately 700 acres of a 3,500-acre family farm. Goodwin began utilizing AgConnections software a little over a year ago, and so far the task of learning how to use it has not proved too daunting.

“We’re not exactly computer experts around here,” Goodwin said. “It’s just like anything – you have to learn it. Once you do, it’s pretty easy.”

“Our largest competitor is non-use,” Clark said. “We’ve had to educate and let it evolve over time to where the marketplace and the grower/producer is starting to see the need and see the value of it. When we started, there wasn’t anybody really doing production-type records.”

AgConnections plans to release the remaining phases of its Hand.db program throughout the remainder of the year. The technology, which utilizes Microsoft-based cell phones/PDAs, is something that Clark believes will push AgConnections to the forefront of ag technology.

“There are PDA solutions out there in the ag industry, (but) nobody’s done it wirelessly through a cell phone system,” he said. “We’ve built the piece that allows a PDA cell phone to send in through a cell phone signal back to our system. The next phase is the PDA through our system back down to the client for complete reference. What that’s going to do is bring agriculture, rural America (and) high-speed Internet all together. To be out there and have a way to send information from a tractor or pickup truck and have it be in a database where that information can be queried and sorted gives them a return on investment.”

Clark also said AgConnections will be working this year to develop technology for controllers that will allow grower/producers to better utilize their field equipment, most notably sprayers. Once the controllers are programmed, they will be able to control the pump, pressure and volume of spray, no matter how fast the other equipment is moving. It will also control guidance, providing features that can turn the boom on and off at the end of the field and even maintain a specific boom height throughout the length of the field.

“It’s becoming very, very sophisticated,” he said. “We plan on having at least one controller done by spring.”

Clark said all AgConnections software is now 100 percent Microsoft Windows Vista compatible, marking another hurdle the company has had to jump in carving out a niche in the ag technology field. While he may not be looking for explosive growth, Clark said AgConnections will continue to try and improve its products in the future.

“(The use of ag technology) is becoming somewhat more adaptive, but as growers, farmers and producers adapt to that, they start seeing that records are a must – to know your cost of production – so you can market your crop at a profit,” he said. “All of that information in our software comes back and becomes a record. You’re tracking everything. It’s like the old saying, ‘We’re going to keep up with everything from the dirt to the dinner plate.’”