Southern States Cooperative: Precision From Sea To Shining Sea

Southern States truck
Precision ag is an important part of Southern States Cooperative’s services at its Agronomy Center in King William, VA.

The humid, late-summer Virginia air clung to your skin like a cheap suit. Southern States Cooperative’s (SSC) King William Agronomy Center (King William, VA), a sleepy outpost just a short jaunt on a winding two lane country highway from the cooperative’s Richmond corporate headquarters, was predictably somewhat slow this morning. Other than some early morning horse play among the crew and the audible CLICK-CLACK of the digital shutter on my DSLR-camera as I shot images, King William was quiet as a church mouse (I imagine it to be quite different during spring fertilizer season).

With not much action taking place that morning, one of my gracious hosts for the week, Dave Swain, manager, precision ag, seized opportunity, grabbing a laptop and one of the newer members of the King William precision ag team and huddling up in the little break/coffee room just off the facilities’ main entrance for an impromptu skull session on drone imagery.

Dave Swain (left), precision ag specialist, at Southern States
Dave Swain (left), precision ag manager at Southern States Cooperative (SSC), reviews soil test results with one of SSC’s employees.

I got the feeling that if Swain could have that type of face-to-face sit-down interaction with every single member of his precision team across SSC’s 59 Agronomy plants, he certainly would. But with SSC’s operational territory stretching from deciduous Northern Maine down to the swampy Florida Everglades, Swain and his team face the constant challenge of staying connected and up-to-date while executing SSC’s precision offerings across such a wide expanse and diversity of plants.

“We strive to eliminate limiting factors to crop production,” said Swain later that afternoon back in Richmond. “The program is not about soil sampling or variable-rate. The goal today is 503 bushel corn, because that’s what we know for a fact that we can grow because of what Randy Dowdy did with the National Corn Growers Association contest did last year. So we know we can grow that, but really for us it’s more about how do I take the guys that are growing only 220 bushel corn and raise that up? How does our precision team help raise that up?

“So we focus on helping them find those limiting factors — make sure compaction’s not keeping them from doing it, or a lack of nutrients or weeds, whatever the case may be.”

Swain is no spring chicken, having formally started in agriculture back in 1997 with Al McQuinn’s AgChem Equipment Co. (sold to AGCO Corp. in 2001). A quick glance at Swain’s LinkedIn profile reveals over 100 endorsements for agriculture as one of his professional skills, so you know his words carry weight.

For Swain, one of the biggest challenges he deals with day-to-day is convincing what’s known in agriculture as the “old hat” crowd to dive further into precision ag adoption. Another is just the speed with which the industry is currently moving.

“Just how fast things are moving technology-wise and just making sure we are moving in the right direction,” answers Swain when asked to discuss some of his major challenges at SSC. “I went through the industry during the mid-1990s, when there were data management companies everywhere and by 2000-01 there were only four or five left. And we’re going to see the same thing in the years to come. Take InfoAg for instance. I think there’s going to be a lot of companies that were there this year that won’t be there next year. If they’re bought, where does that data go? Those are the types of things in my job that I am working on staying in front of.”

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