Growth Points: Trust everyone, but cut the cards

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Hold a meeting that pulls in nearly 4,000 corn, soybean, sorghum and wheat growers and you’ll be sure to attract ag media. Attract ag media and you better make sure there’s space for news conferences. 

This year’s Commodity Classic had its share of news conferences, and many of them had to do with precision agriculture and the data it generates. By the way, PR people call them “news conferences” and not “press conferences,” because, well, radio, tv and Internet guys don’t really use presses. But I digress.

Here’s the thing that happens when corporations feel they are falling behind: They write news releases and hold news conferences that tend to be more geared to assure stockholders and others having a stake in the business that “despite all appearances to the contrary, we are NOT falling behind. We have really great stuff right around the corner. It’s going to be big.  And cool. Really cool and really big. Did we mention how cool? And how big?

We seem to be in such a season inside precision ag currently. Many who’ve been in the trenches of making precision agriculture work for the past couple of decades — with software, equipment and sweat — watch with interest and wonder if there’s anything behind the “news.” 

“I think many of these larger companies are motivated to show Wall Street they are doing something, so they send out a press release,” says Matt Waits, CEO of SST Software, when I asked him about the current news. “There are a bunch of those out there right now.”

Matt, his father David and other folks at SST are in a good position to know. Their team has been working to make precision agriculture work for growers since 1994. As the conversation about big data accelerates, here’s a number worth remembering: 86 million. That’s the number of acres SST currently holds data on in aggregate after 20 years of business. 

SST’s system runs underneath multiple information platforms as they’ve worked to make it easier to get good geo-referenced data into a format useful to growers and farm suppliers.

“Service providers may be able to provide a hundred things,” says Waits, “but most growers can’t deal with a hundred things. We help retailers establish menus so they can help growers consider solutions they can actually use.”

Monsanto wanted to buy SST back along the way, says Waits, but the family wanted to remain independent and elected to forge a development contract instead that allows for Monsanto’s FieldScripts program to run inside SST’s Summit platform. They are intent on remaining independent and working with others to help retailers make better recommendations for growers.

“If you are an ag retailer salesmen, you aren’t going risk half a million in input sales over a $6 per acre information package, if you aren’t sure you can deliver on your commitment,“ says Waits. “You need to be sure it’s a program designed to allow you to execute it efficiently and at a scale that can serve all of your customers.”

Wisdom will be needed at the retail level as choices for both growers and retailers multiply. Those whose livelihood is directly based on the success of the crop in the ground and how much it cost to put it there will need to think critically to get beyond the marketing to the truth.

“Retailers are in a good position to be the grower’s trusted advisor,” says Waits, “but retailers have to gain a level of sophistication about these different aspects of precision ag so they can understand where different companies are coming from.”

Mmm. I think he’s talking about separating hard value from vapor.

Brings to mind a quote credited to W.C. Fields: “Trust everybody. But cut the cards yourself.”

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