ForeFront Ag Solutions: Going Beyond The Averages

Erich Eller ForeFront Ag Solutions with Ag Eagle-drone
Erich Eller’s drone of choice is the AgEagle, in large part because of its compatibility with SST’s AgX platform.

He’s flying essentially solo these days with business support from his wife Jennifer, but Erich Eller has big dreams for his precision agronomy consulting service, ForeFront Ag Solutions. He can visualize clearly a pathway to steady growth, a full-time support staff, and satisfied grower customers, pleased with the value Eller creates and open to new ideas.

Based 20 minutes west of Ft. Wayne, IN, in the town of Huntington, Fore­Front’s business philosophy through its first three years has mirrored its founder’s values — be forward-thinking about agronomy and technology adoption, but build it on a foundation of sound practices and valid data. “That’s why we called it ForeFront, because I always want to be two or three years ahead of the industry,” says Eller. “I like to be the tester, the dreamer, and bring products and services in where they are usable.”

What’s enabled ForeFront to grow and thrive as a two-person operation has been the judicious use technology. Eller has streamlined data and logistics by working with compatible systems from the get-go, and being clear on the value propositions available to customers.

Eller had the benefit of broad agriculture experience when he decided to go out on his own as a consultant. Following graduation from Purdue in 1997, he began working at an agricultural retailer and got to experience the burgeoning precision technology market up close. He then shifted to seed, working as an agronomist for seven years in Indiana, before moving to an equipment dealership in 2010.

A young family and the pressure of frequent travel made an offer from a local John Deere dealer very appealing, so he made the move. It was also his first glint of the future of ag technology. “Seven dollar corn and $15 beans drove a great boom in equipment sales,” he says. “Self-steer tractors, high-end global positioning, in-cab monitors — it was all flying off the shelves. But the growers were not doing much with it. I knew there was much more that could be done that they were not utilizing.”

His slow burn on the idea of creating a business to help growers extract more value from precision services finally came to a head one day over lunch with his wife on break from the equipment dealership he was working for in 2014. “When she, who is usually my sounding board for my ideas, said she was all in, we were on our way.”

Erich Eller with handheld GreenSeeker
Eller recently acquired a handheld GreenSeeker from Trimble, which he is hoping to use as he fine-tunes data collection and recommendations on “zones within zones.”

The underpinning to ForeFront is what Eller calls a “systematic approach” to consulting, starting with building on the grower’s existing operational efforts. “We won’t come in and tell guys what to do or not to do,” says Eller. “We try to take what they do and enhance it further. As the relationship improves, I can begin to bring some new ideas to them.”

He is also striving to more deeply understand field variability on a more granular level. He’s a zone management enthusiast, with a passion for finding the reasons for the “zones within zones” where mysteriously high or low performing parts of fields might contain secrets to be learned and managed.

Eller admits he’s benefitted from working through three very distinct growing seasons: a muddy and wet 2014, a bone dry 2015, and a more typically uneven 2016 — which has helped him run his ideas, practices and systems through their paces.

A Web of Knowledge

Along with the requisite hard work and persistence, Eller is able to maintain and grow business by utilizing products and companies that deliver both value and connectivity. Eller chose SST as the center of his information hub, from which virtually every software program can connect and move data. “SST Summit is my desktop-laptop system, and the AgX data platform is the translator,” he says. Everything he uses is able to pass data through AgX to keep data accessible, compatible and valid.

Veris soil sampling
For initial soil sampling for EC and organic matter as well as topography, the Veris rig provides the data required in one pass.

His choice of foundational field data starts with his Veris rig to collect EC and organic matter data, although he’s bucked the majority view on fall soil testing. “I’ve chosen to do my sampling in the spring. It has given us more consistency as far as time management and more consistency in for year to year as to when we sample, which leads to more accurate soil testing,” he asserts. Eller runs the Veris rigged with GPS to collect topography data as well.

Eller disdains the “averages” approach — he works to understand both the positive and negative anomalies in the zones, and ensure that as much of the field is maximized as possible. This involves soil and tissue testing to weigh up crop vitality and soil fertility throughout the growing season.

One key goal is nitrogen optimization, and an important tool has been the Adapt-N system. Adapt-N is essentially a proprietary algorithm that provides nitrogen recommendations for a given field, but which requires spot-on management and field data be input on the front end. “I start this with the farmer’s plan – expected yield, and fertilizer prep that’s been done, and if a stabilizer was used,” says Eller. “The next part is soil and tillage, drainage, depth of till, and any manure application. Add in weather data, and the end of the day we get a nitrogen recommendation for the field.”

Over the three seasons he’s used the system, Eller has grown in confidence with the Adapt-N recommendations, which have provided solid front-end decision making tools. In particular, in wet and highly variable years the recommendations helped identify nutrient deficient areas at a time when action could still be taken.

ATV Scout with homemade iPad holder
The scouting ATV features a homemade iPad holder and shade to improve visibility and convenience of use.

Even in relatively “quiet” seasons, Eller feels confident that Adapt-N has delivered value. “We still do some tissue sampling to ground truth the recs in season, and the Adapt-N folks have allowed us some freedom to change some things based on what we are seeing locally,” says Eller.

Return on investment has also been a big focus for Eller and his clients. Last year, Eller started slicing and dicing the financial performance of zones in farm fields using the AgSolver tool, which is also seamlessly compatible with SST and the AgX data platform. AgSolver can bring in more than 200 potential operational and field variables, and be used to run scenarios that paint a picture of the field ROI under each plan.

In one case, Eller ran two scenarios for a grower client based on an Adapt-N variable-rate nitrogen recommendation for a 96-acre field, and the same field straight-rated as it had been the year before. “At the end of the day, the straight-rated nitrogen lost $4,700, while the variable-rate application plan paid the bills and generated an $862 profit,” said Eller.

Farmers can get in the scenario game using AgSolver too by buying a subscription and changing out variables. “I have all their planting and yield data, so I put it in for them in the background. They can click on and set their budget, what they plan to sell the crop for, the cost of equipment, insurance, dry handling — really just about any variable you can imagine. Using this we can start to construct scenarios for home run, most likely, and worst case so we can plan better and manage risk.”

Eller also chose to invest in a drone, choosing AgEagle for both its capability and compatibility with the AgX platform. The overall system is powered by Botlink, a software program that delivers a stitched image into SST Summit which can then be used via SST’s Sirrus app for field scouting. “It delivers NDVI imaging to provide a view of crop health, and we can move that imagery into an iPad to identify and try to diagnose field issues.”

Sometimes it’s water, sometimes it’s an insect pest — sometimes when you see an excessive patch of greenness it turns out to be a thistle patch, something that happened to us last year,” he continues.

The jury is still out on payback with the drone, but Eller is looking into adding different cameras and sensors that will allow it to do other things. “We are on the forefront with this technology and we’re looking at ways to use this tool better.”

Leave a Reply

Business Management Stories
Deere R4023 cab
Business ManagementOpinion: Reality vs. Hype in Precision Agriculture
July 6, 2017
I think there is a certain word that can accurately describe much of the precision ag and/or ag tech industry right Read More
Alabama bottomland
Business ManagementGreenPoint AG: Dealing in Ag Tech Down on the Delta
June 5, 2017
Precision-farming veteran Ben Carlisle is the Agricultural Technology Manager for GreenPoint AG, LLC, a retailer with locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Read More
GPS, Guidance
Business ManagementPromoting Precision Agricultural Innovation in a Risk Averse Marketplace
April 24, 2017
As precision agriculture consultants we constantly are being asked our opinions on where to invest, and how to strategically invest Read More
Business ManagementBionic Leaves: Future Source of Endless Fertilizer?
April 21, 2017
*Article Notes: This monthly column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The Read More
Trending Articles
Yield Data Image
Data ManagementYield Data: More Than a Pretty Picture
July 13, 2017
It is mid-July, which, for the Australian cotton industry, means that picking is still going on for some growers. A Read More
BASF Maglis Grower Tablet
ProfessionalsPatience Needed: Lessons for Getting New Tech onto the Farm
July 6, 2017
A popular joke within the tech industry was trotted out at GAI AgTech Week in Boston, MA, speaking volumes about Read More
PrecisionAg Vision Conference
EventsPrecisionAg® Vision Conference: Focused on the Future
June 13, 2017
PrecisionAg® is pleased to announce the return of its PrecisionAg Vision Conference, October 10-12, 2017. Based on overwhelmingly positive response Read More
Gavin Newsom Forbes AgTech-Summit
ProfessionalsAgTech Summit Aiming High for Modern Farming Solutions
June 12, 2017
THRIVE AgTech, in partnership with SVG Partners and Forbes, is hosting the third annual Forbes AgTech Summit June 28-29 in Read More
Quantix Drone Farmer
DronesTop 10 Most Intriguing Technologies in Agriculture
June 3, 2017
This may be a bit of stating the obvious here, but we’ll throw it out there anyways: as much as Read More
Farming iPad
Data ManagementOpinion: ROI or Die in Precision Agriculture
May 12, 2017
The thought of $3.50 corn for the foreseeable future seems pretty disheartening. However, if you look at the precision ag Read More
Latest News
Industry NewsLindsay Corp. Names Dow’s Timothy Hassinger New C…
July 19, 2017
Lindsay Corp. has  announced the appointment of Timothy Hassinger as president and CEO and a member of its board of Read More
InfoAg 2015
Events2017 Awards of Excellence Winners Announced
July 18, 2017
PrecisionAg Institute is pleased to announce its Awards of Excellence winners for 2017. Honorees of this year’s prestigious award are Read More
Interseeding Cover Crops
ProfessionalsA 3-Step Approach to Interseeding Cover Crops
July 18, 2017
As growers continue to search for opportunities to create healthier soils and increase yields, more trusted advisors and farmers are Read More
Rod Weimer and Paul Schrimpf
Excellence AwardsPast Recipients Of The PrecisionAg Awards Of Excellence
July 18, 2017
Since 2007, the PrecisionAg Insititute has sponsored the annual Awards of Excellence program. Here's a list of the past winners. Read More
Data ManagementEFC Announces FieldAlytics, Adapt-N Expanded Integratio…
July 17, 2017
EFC Systems is pleased to announce an expanded integration between its FieldAlytics product and Agronomic Technology Corp’s Adapt-N nitrogen recommendations Read More
Data ManagementOpinion: Benchmarking in Precision Agriculture is Big S…
July 17, 2017
Benchmarking has become a buzzword in precision agriculture recently and before we get too excited with all of the profound Read More
Yield Data Image
Data ManagementYield Data: More Than a Pretty Picture
July 13, 2017
It is mid-July, which, for the Australian cotton industry, means that picking is still going on for some growers. A Read More
Industry NewsQuick Rewind: Ohio Dealer Talks Deere-Precision Plantin…
July 12, 2017
A few weeks ago I took a quick trip south down I-71 to Central Ohio (for you non-Buckeyes, I-71 runs Read More
DronesSentera Launches Versatile Quad Sensor for Drones
July 12, 2017
Fully Customizable Filters on Sentera Quad Sensor Allow for Unique Crop Health Detection Capabilities Sentera introduces the latest update to Read More
Hortau Irrigation Management Software
Sensors/IoTHortau Named Finalist for CogX Artificial Intelligence …
July 10, 2017
Hortau was recently named a CogX Award finalist in the Best Artificial Intelligence Product in Agriculture category. The awards were Read More
Grower Services & SolutionsVantage South Atlantic Announces Mid-South Expansion
July 10, 2017
Vantage South Atlantic announced that it has joined Trimble Agriculture’s global network of independent Vantage partners to provide farmers, advisors, Read More
Ag Retailer and Grower WinField United
Decision Support SoftwareAgronomic Technology Corp Surpasses Daily Nitrogen Reco…
July 6, 2017
Agronomic Technology Corp, a leader in agricultural field modeling for soil, water, crops, and fertilizer, for the first time surpassed Read More
Precision IrrigationDealership Celebrates 25 Years in the Irrigation Game
July 6, 2017
25 years ago, Bobby Kempenich had an idea. An idea to launch a business that combined his knowledge of irrigation Read More
BASF Maglis Grower Tablet
ProfessionalsPatience Needed: Lessons for Getting New Tech onto the …
July 6, 2017
A popular joke within the tech industry was trotted out at GAI AgTech Week in Boston, MA, speaking volumes about Read More
Deere R4023 cab
Business ManagementOpinion: Reality vs. Hype in Precision Agriculture
July 6, 2017
I think there is a certain word that can accurately describe much of the precision ag and/or ag tech industry right Read More
Events2017 agBOT Challenge Winners Announced
July 6, 2017
Driverless robotic machines entered the fields of Gerrish Farms in Rockville, IN in June 2017. Universities and entrepreneurial teams showcased Read More
gomez-featured
ProfessionalsCommitment to Ag Innovation: Q&A with DuPont Pionee…
July 5, 2017
Editor’s note: PrecisionAg.com contributor Amy Wu often writes about women in ag technology. Recently, she interviewed DuPont Pioneer’s Nadilia Gomez, research scientist, Read More
LAP
InternationalLAP and ABPSAP: Advancing Precision Agriculture in Braz…
July 5, 2017
In this article, I would like to highlight two important entities of precision agriculture in Brazil. The first of these Read More