A specially equipped team of technicians and agronomists will head out across Ohio and neighboring states this spring, stopping only long enough to plant five-acre test plots. As they trailer their tractor and planter from farm to farm, they will strengthen existing customer relationships and swap cold calls for warm welcomes from prospects. In both cases, the Advanced Agri-Solutions Cooperative Inc. (AASC) team will be planting the seeds of new business for the co-op and introducing new technologies to growers.

The effort is a result of the co-op's self-examination. "As our farmers continue to grow and as available technologies continue to evolve, we are trying to figure out how to work with both," said Bob Lucia, director of sales for Progressive Crop Technology (PCT) at AASC. "We hold field days every September at our research farm, but how do we get our top farmers to show up? How do you intrigue them to be there?"

The AASC solution was to reach more top farmers by taking test plots to the farmers with what Lucia calls their "23rd Century Research Tractor and Planter." The 4720 John Deere tractor and a reworked 1750 John Deere four-row corn planter are equipped for precision placement of corn and soybeans in a variety of row configurations with variable rates and differing inputs.

An Ag Leader Integra Monitor and a ParaDyme auto-steer, using the Ohio VRS CORS network and an Internet broadcast RTK, delivers sub-inch steering. The Integra controls variable-rate seeding and the DirectCommand system in turn controls three liquid products — on-seed starter, two-inch by two-inch placement fertilizer and a liquid insecticide. A SureFire Ag pump and metering system delivers the liquid inputs, while Precision Planter eSet meters and Airforce systems ensure precise seed placement.

"We have all the latest technology in the tractor and on the planter," said Lucia. "Machinery equipment dealers don't have the time or expertise to operate this equipment and work with the inputs, and growers can't justify the outlay when they don't know what their return will be. We can demonstrate the latest technology paired with our seed and nutrient recommendations on a grower's soil, next to his crops planted his way, on the field."

The research planter is equipped with seven planter units that can be used to produce 15-inch and 30-inch rows. Twin-row 30s can be produced with a second pass at the 30-inch configuration, but offset by seven and a half inches.

High Hopes For High Tech

Lucia has big hopes for what the high-tech planter will do for the co-op and its members. "Using this rig, we can compare our hybrids at different row spacings and populations," said Lucia. "We also can compare conventional two-inch by two-inch liquid 28 percent or 10-34-0 with the (PCT) products we make at our Kettlersville facility."

The PCT brand liquid macro and micronutrient fertilizers were introduced by AASC in 2004. Sales hit 300,000 gallons that year. In 2009, sales went past two million gallons, but Lucia has been challenged to get growers to try in-furrow starters and foliar applications. He expects the on-farm plots to boost sales. Indeed, the planter has already opened the door to new customers.

"When we showed the planter at our Tech Showcase this past fall, we had customers of competitive retailers come up and ask us to stop out and see them," said Lucia. "They were interested in the planter and what we were doing and wanted a plot on their farm."

Lucia points out that having a plot in place with a competitor's customer opens the door to relationship building as his agronomy sales people stop by throughout the season. "The plot gives us umpteen touch points — from planting through riding in the combine with him at harvest to sitting at the kitchen table going over yields and comparing returns," he said. "It eliminates the concept of cold calls and gives us something totally different and unique from what our competitors have to offer."

Seed sales with existing customers could increase as well if they like what they see with higher plant populations. AASC Board Chairman Chris Schroer was an early applicant for an on-farm plot. He had been planning to trade planters after the 2010 season, and the co-op's planter will give him a chance to try both variable rate planting and twin rows on his soils.

"We've been tweaking yields using grid sampling and VRT fertilizer applications," he said. "Right now we plant around 32,500 seeds to the acre on most of our fields. I think we have the potential to push a little more on some of our ground and get a better yield response. We'll go 36,500 on our better ground and drop back to 30,000 to 30,500 on lighter ground using this planter."

Using Small Plots to Answer Questions

Rick Schleucher shares Schroer's curiosity about twin rows, both for his own farm and for his seed customers. A district sales manager for Stewart Seeds, Schleucher is all too aware of the confounding number of seed, seed treatment and fertilizer options he and his customers face. He hopes his AASC plot will give him some insights into twin-row planting.

"We want to compare several hybrids and hybrid families in twin-row configurations," Schleucher said. "AASC has all kinds of different liquid fertilizer and micronutrient mixes. The plot will give us a chance to see what kind of return their prescription gives us on our farm. I also hope what we learn will help me make recommendations to my customers."

Like Lucia, Schleucher hopes to use the plot to further interest in his own field days. He will be placing the AASC plot alongside his own demonstration plots.

"Any advantage we can share with our customers makes us more welcome in their eyes," he said. "They have questions and are looking for information."

Schroer sees the co-op's $75,000 investment in the equipment as filling a needed role for his fellow growers. "Our members need to be able to take advantage of these new technologies, but every farmer can't afford to try it on their own," he said. "It made more sense from our board's perspective for the co-op to do it."

Although Lucia agrees with the service component of the project, he is charging a nominal fee for each five-acre plot planted. Depending on what the plot entails, a grower will pay from $250 to $500.

"The growers we are trying to reach are a mixed group, those with some, but not all of the technology, and those ready to try something different from what they have been doing," he said. "The fee isn't going to make us rich, but it does separate the serious from the merely interested."

Investing in the Future

Making every plot count is vital to meeting the co-op's goals. A recently completed consolidation of AASC and Southwest Landmark, combined with sales of the PCT product line in neighboring states, has resulted in plots being lined up from the Ohio River and north 300 miles into Michigan, west into Indiana and east into Kentucky. To meet those commitments, the co-op invested in a special flatbed trailer with a hydraulically operated, rear dovetail design to lift and carry the planter. Remote controls in the cab of the tractor let the operator load and unload the tractor and planter in minutes. Even with the trailer, Lucia knows covering the entire territory will be a challenge.

"We have three crew members that are trained to operate the planter," explained Lucia. "They will work like a custom combine crew, starting in the south and moving north."

Growers aren't the only ones taking notice of AASC's planter. Ohio State University Extension has signed up for plots as well, with plans to try PCT starters on 15-inch corn. Lucia says FMC and Valent have expressed interest in trying in-furrow seed treatments.

"One problem with seed treatments is to get enough on the seed," noted Lucia. "We will be able to inject the treatment right in the furrow and adjust it on the go and then compare with standard treatments."

Lucia even plans to use the planter to promote the co-op and its products from the air. His team has drawn up several specialized VRT planting maps. "Using the individual row start and stop, we will be able to spell out Trupointe Co-op (the newly consolidated entity) in a field," said Lucia. "I also have one farmer who has signed up for us to plant a corn maze. We'll just preload the jobs and let the planter take care of the rest."