In 2004, Tim Norris was an Ohio-based agronomist and ag technology expert that had just left the local cooperative to start his own consulting business, Agronomic Information Technologies. His early experiments with automatic steering turned him on to its potential, and led him to form alliances with growers and ag business to develop the area’s first RTK tower network. The Central Ohio RTK Network, or CORN, covers about a third of Norris’ grower-customer base today.
As a full-service representative of Ag Leader and Trimble products as well as an agronomy consultant, Norris has had his hands full since he started out on his own five years ago. But he hasn’t stopped working to grow and diversify the business to improve customer service.
Health issues last summer slowed him down for a time, and got him reflecting on the risk of running a two-man operation when half the staff goes out of commission. This, and the opportunity to bring in additional help and further grow the business, is leading to a new evolution for his company. Norris is expanding by adding two additional employees, and “streamlining” by officially truncating the business name down to Ag Info Tech LLC.
“After my heart surgery I realized that I need people in place to keep the business going if something were to happen to me,” recalls Norris. “Luckily, I had just hired Matt Dugan to help me and he was a life saver. But that was asking a lot from Matt being new and I know that I had some customers that were afraid to call as to not disturb me. I do not want that to happen again.
“Business keeps growing and I see a real need for more training and for more help with growers on the farm to get the most out of their precision data,” he continues. “With this extra help we are planning on stepping up our training program. I hold at least three training sessions a year now and plan on adding at least three more training sessions per year from now on.
Matt Culler will be the main tech support person and will lend a hand with sales, and Jeff Studder will pull soil samples and manage the GIS system. Norris will oversee the business, act as the main sales person, and head up the training programs. The company in this expanded form will commence operations on Jan. 1, 2010.
The CORS Opportunity
Norris’ territory is set at the extreme eastern edge of the Midwest Corn Belt, tucked amid rolling hills that get more profound the farther east you go. When he laid out plans for an RTK network, he knew there’d be some limitations to its utility. Some growers are able to use the network without additional repeaters, but others needed a boost from a mobile repeater. The majority, however, are tucked in and around hills that are simply too steep and numerous to use the network.
“There’s no way we could have a traditional RTK network in many areas unless we had 10 repeaters off the same base station, which is cost-prohibitive,” explains Norris. “The only solution was to have a portable base station. But now, with the cell modems we have available, we have the ability to get correction over the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) VRS Network. This is going to open up our whole territory to RTK, and we are very excited about it.”
The opportunity to tap into the ODOT’s VRS RTK network was a godsend for Norris. He worked this year on mapping out his implementation strategy, and will have several growers hooked up with the CORS system for the 2010 season.
CORS — Continuously Operating Reference Stations — offers GPS guidance featuring RTK-level accuracy that can be received through cellular networks using cell modems or cell phones. CORS networks generally originate from a state-level department, most often transportation, for use in surveying and construction. But states are rapidly making these networks available to the private sector upon request. So far there has been no subscription fee attached to use of the networks.
As a Trimble authorized dealer, Norris offers the Trimble CORS package, which includes a modem that is designed to receive the GPS correction through the AT&T network. The CORS network in Ohio is a Trimble VRS Network Solution, so the system is relatively easy to connect with Trimble equipment. The downside is that in this area of Ohio, the AT&T signal is not consistently strong enough in every part of Norris’ service area for it to be a universal CORS solution.
He found an alternative from a company called Intuicom, which manufactures a modem called the RTK Bridge. With some pre-programming work performed by Norris, the Intuicom unit is capable of receiving the CORS system through Verizon, which features a stronger signal in the area. The Trimble system retails for $1,495, while the Intuicom RTK Bridge sells for about twice as much — although the price is beginning to come down, notes Norris.
With expansion plans in place and the RTK rollout strategy set, Norris will be spending this winter tinkering with a new project this winter: Building a display that will allow him to show off his technology offerings to current and potential grower-customers more easily.
He’s purchased a mobile trailer that he will be converting into a “technology on wheels.” When finished, the unit will contain working demonstrations of the different units and technology he offers, so he can literally take his showroom on the road and right to the farmhouse or the tradeshow.
“We’re really excited about the potential for getting out and demonstrating this technology,” says Norris.
He also is sharing his knowledge and training skills to students at the Ohio State Universtiy this winter.
“I will be teaching five labs instructing students how to use Ag Leaders SMS Advanced software for data processing and analysis,” says Norris.