“What if I were to tell you that a Manitoba potato grower got the inspiration to dive into the world of yield monitors and light bars to save his relationship with an All-American institution: McDonald’s?”
OK, so maybe this particular story wouldn’t make for the highest-rated 30 For 30 after all.
Apologies for that lead, I’m still emotionally reeling from ESPN’s most recent entry to its documentary series “Beliveland,” which details the calamitous history of the three professional sport franchises that I share a home with here on the North Coast. I’m afraid reliving almost 50 years of Browns, Cavs, and Indians heartbreak and futility in 1080p HD has left me a bit scatterbrained in the interim.
But I digress.
Back to that Canadian potato grower. His precision story has a far better ending than BelieveLand, and his name is Jason Kehler, a fourth-generation Red River Valley farmer that’s been growing a wide variety of crops on his families’ 5,500 acre farm “since I was old enough to get the end of a shovel off the ground.”
Kehler and his wife Laura were recently honored with Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2016 award. Once I got wind that the Kehlers were well-known as precision agriculture pioneers up in Canada, I wanted to see if perhaps precision ag technology had in any way helped Kehler capture the award.
Two things came off as big surprises to me when speaking with Kehler. First and foremost was the role fast food behemoth McDonalds played in his adoption of new management practices.
“I guess the reason precision agriculture appealed to me was, we’d been growing potatoes and had been having issues in our potato crop,” remembers Kehler. “It used to be as long as you hauled potatoes to the processor, they were happy. They made the French fries, McDonalds sold them – life was good.
“As time progressed, obviously McDonalds started to want a better product, a better looking French fry, and consumers became more aware of what they were eating, so we needed to even out our crop, we needed to grow a better quality crop, and we were having some troubles that way.”
Already knowing that he was working with significant variation among the soil types across his acres – a major, perhaps unquantifiable element of Kehler’s success is his intimate first-hand knowledge of the land he farms – Kehler decided to try variable rate nitrogen on a quarter of his acres the next year. That quarter swiftly became 100% VRT once Kehler saw the results.
“It turned our crop around – in the potato world we measure and look at gravity and color, at harvest you want to have a specific amount of gravity, which basically measures the amount of starch in the potato,” Kehler explains. “For example, the perfect gravity for a McCain potato is 1.087% solid in the potato; that’s the perfect number. So, too light a potato – i.e. a 1.085% gravity – it’s harder to make a quality French fry with because it’s more water.”
Kehler recalls that before going full VRT he’d be hauling in loads of potatoes that ranged anywhere from 1.087% to 1.083%, and that just wasn’t good enough for Ol’ Ronald McDonald and his nemesis the Hamburglar.
“I’ve expanded potato acres 100% in last two years, and I’d say I probably wouldn’t be growing potatoes anymore (if VRT hadn’t made the crop more consistent),” Kehler says. “If we wouldn’t have changed our management practices, we would’ve lost some of that (McDonalds) business, for sure.”
Today the Kehlers variable rate all of their nitrogen, potash, and phosphate, as well as implement VR seeding, and Kehler says the main data layer he uses to base in-season zone management decisions on his potato crop is aerial imagery, which he obtains through the Winnipeg-based Farmers Edge ag tech outfit’s Precision Solutions FMIS software. (Yield data is reportedly not as important in potato production – compared to corn and beans – because you can only record harvest data once every four years.)
“Farmer’s Edge, they take the information and make it into a map and load it into the combines, and we review everything closely with our Farmers Edge rep,” says Kehler. “They’ve never been afraid to get at it. They’ll come out at midnight, Sundays, they know what side their bread is buttered on, they work for farmers. It’s a good company to work with.”
Wade Barnes, Farmers Edge Co-Founder, President & CEO, remembers meeting Jason Kehler for the first time back in February 2006.
“We were at a potato grower trade show, he had heard of us and stopped by our booth and started asking questions, and we kind of explained what we did, and he asked would this work in potatoes,” remembers Barnes. “At that point in time we hadn’t had as much success with potato growers as a whole, so he was sort of the guinea pig (in potatoes). That’s just kind of the grower he is.”
What kind of grower are you referring to, Mr. Barnes?
“He’s just such a leading edge guy, always very open minded to change and sort of striving to be better,” Barnes replies. “For us at Farmers Edge it’s important that our clients are pushing the edge and trying to make themselves better because it makes us better as a company. As our business has grown I’ve become less involved in the managing of Jason’s business, but when you get those type of people that you work with it gives you as an organization a ton of credibility.
“We’re really excited to be associated with him. Impressed and proud, and humbled that he even mentioned us.”
Now, if you remember back to the beginning of this article, I said there were two things that Kehler said in our conversation that struck me as particularly interesting.
That second thing not yet mentioned being that, for all the talk about yield data and how it will revolutionize the way the world farms, not to mention the quasi-threats from the marketing wings of many of the FMIS companies that if you aren’t already up to your neck in agronomic data and yield maps that you’ll be left in the proverbial dust, Kehler has accomplished all of this while keeping the data crunching at arm’s length.
“You know, I’ve got to be honest, the data is kind of secondary to me,” he admits. “At the end of the day I don’t try to focus on data too much. For my operation, being a hands-on, good farmer and covering the bases is getting me much further than sitting at a desk looking at combine maps.”
*EDITOR’S NOTE: GO CAVS!