Rising From The Ashes

Tim Norris was enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family when the call came. There’s a fire on his property.

Norris manages Ag InfoTech LLC, a precision technology consulting firm in Gambier, OH. On his property at the time were four buildings — a historic stone house his family calls home, the storage and office facility for his business, a newer building that houses the tractors and implements used on the acreage he owns, and an old barn. During the frantic drive back home, he imagines that it’s his house that is burning.

“We were having work done in our second floor bedroom, so I thought maybe it was an electrical fire or something,” recalls Norris.

But as he approaches the property now littered with fire engines from three municipalities, Norris and his family are relieved to find that the family home is safe from the fire. But the office and storage facility that contain virtually the entire business is going up in flames, and the loss would be total.

The fire was out and the firemen had left the property around 1:00 a.m., and Norris was left to his thoughts for a few sleepless hours, contemplating his options. “For just a moment, I thought about just packing it in and giving it all up,” he admits. “But that didn’t last long.” He wrote a long and cathartic note that he sent in an e-mail that he sent to his customers, suppliers, and friends explaining what happened, rededicating himself to the business, and reminding them to be thankful for what they have even in times of extreme stress.

“I could not believe the response that I received from that e-mail,” recalls Norris. “I had people tell me that it helped them stop and think about the situation that they are in, and realize that they need to just buckle down and work through it.” It also strengthened him for the difficult days ahead, reconstructing the business and moving things forward.

Norris probably could not have imagined the progress his business would make over the next 12 months, including a partnership that would add two employees and allow him to focus on growing the business in the years ahead.

Facing The Fire

Recovering from a disaster that destroys virtually every easily accessible shred of a business was a daunting task that would require time and cooperation from everyone. Complicating matters was Norris’ inadvertent misstep — leaving his laptop in the office the night of the fire, which would have provided a significant measure of backup for his business records.

“There wasn’t more than three or four times I can recall having left my laptop in the building,” says Norris. “I always brought it in the house with me. This was one of those times I did.”

The recovery would involve bringing together as many threads of data and business records that could be found, and fortunately he was able to find a lot of them. Suppliers sent copies of back invoices, and customers shared CDs of data and information that served as quasi-backups. Among suppliers in particular, Sure Tech Labs was able to share all the raw soil test data, and SST had the sample points for customers where the SST Stratus was used for field data collection. Norris was also fortunate to have a hard copy of the business statement for October, so he had a handle on receivables as well. “It took a long time to get everything back to where it was, but we were very fortunate to have the pieces of information available to reassemble,” says Norris.

The fire investigation took a full week before Norris was allowed into the charred building. Thus began the assessment of the loss, and assembling the pieces of wreckage for making the insurance claim. In addition to losing his backup laptop, another bit of misfortune for Norris was the recent receipt of more than $200,000 worth of inventory from Trimble, which was lost in the fire.

“Trimble was super supportive of our business,” says Norris. “We told them what had happened, and they shipped out a duplicate order, no questions asked.” As a stopgap inventory storage solution, they rented a truck trailer.

Every piece of equipment had to be dug out of the burnt-out building, lined up and photographed for insurance purposes. Other unfortunate losses inside the building were a new Ranger ATV that was being fitted as a soil testing rig, a trailer that was being remade into a travelling exhibit booth and demonstration vehicle, and four motorcycles.

While he was assessing the loss, Norris got in touch with a local builder to discuss the construction of a new office and equipment storage facility. The office was constructed as an attachment to the existing storage building.

Overall, Norris says that his insurance came through very well on both the vehicles and the business inventory, but was not quite enough on the building. “It’s one of those things that you just don’t know how good it is until something happens.” He credits a good relationship with an insurance adjuster as a significant help in assembling information for claims and speeding the recovery of his business.

Aiming For Growth

With the business stabilized, work could begin on the year ahead. One thing the fire brought home for Norris was the importance of having people in the business besides himself and Matt Dugan, his tech support and installation specialist. And the only way to grow would be for him to step away from some of the “on the ground” work and focus on the business.

The solution was the creation of a joint venture with Town & Country Co-op (TC), an Ashland, OH-based cooperative for which Tim had done some work and whose agronomists he knew well. The creation of Ag InfoTech LLC essentially gave Tim access to two quality individuals: Matt Culler, who serves as a sales and tech support specialist; and Jeff Studer, a data management specialist.

“The new business structure has helped me focus more on where the company needs to head for the long term and less on day-to-day activities,” says Norris. “We have a great team and we could not have been as successful as we are without their support.”

On the business side, the new structure gives Norris access to Town &  Country’s support staff, in particular on the accounting front for managing bills and payroll. They also provide a convenient line of credit for Ag InfoTech.

“One of my concerns is working capital, and we had grown to the point that we had to have $200,000 to $300,000 in inventory while also having a significant amount in receivables,” says Norris. “At times I felt like we were stretched pretty thin and at some risk. With TC we have a whole slew of people on outside, and it’s nice to be part of something bigger.”

A symbiotic benefit is market access. Ag InfoTech’s headquarters sits about an hour south of TC’s southernmost outlet, providing it quasi-access to a new market area, and Ag InfoTech is using the cooperative’s locations as a springboard into fertile consulting markets in northeastern Ohio.

Spreading The Word

An educated grower is the best consumer of precision products, and two good ideas for improving grower understanding and appreciation of technology were implemented in 2010.

The fire only served to delay a project that Norris had planned to knock out last winter: precision agriculture learning on wheels. Designed to be used at conferences, trade shows and seminars, the trailer is a self-contained demonstration booth for technology that Ag InfoTech offers.

Along with providing a comfortable and efficient way to show off technology, the trailer can be packed up and headed for home minutes after a show closes. It’s also been handy to take directly out to customers to provide a more intimate demonstration of their precision product and service offerings.

Norris and his team also devised a special field day called the “Poker Run.” The event required growers to drive to individual stations to accumulate “cards” that would be redeemed at the end of the event for a chance to win a piece of precision agriculture equipment and other door prizes.

Each station featured a different piece of precision technology on display, and some of the more scenic stops included a lesson in how technology is improving agriculture stewardship in addition to efficiency and yield. “For example, we talked about how automatic swath control is helping us to use herbicides and fertilizers more accurately and efficiently, protecting nearby waterways and nature areas,” says Norris.

The event was held on a Saturday to encourage spouses to attend. “Most of the growers brought their wives with them, which was one of the goals,” says Norris. “They are often very involved in the operation, so it’s important for them to see what they are investing in and why precision technology products are purchased for the farm.”

Hot In 2010

Norris noted some interesting trends in technology that interest from his grower-customers. Here are some of the highlights from this season:

Planter Control. Grower interest in controlling their planting activities significantly increased in 2010, both in new planter purchases and in retrofits. “We did five new Deere planters that had the Row Command clutch built in, so we were able to simply tie into their harnesses,” says Norris. “There were several others where we put clutches on as well.

“Most of the interest for growers is in varying the rate of corn plantings, and most of them want to vary it manually. They are trying to figure out the best rate for building a prescription with the hopes of improving yield in some areas and reducing seed costs in others. It’s too early to pinpoint the benefits yet, but we know it will pay back big time in corn.” With soybeans the benefit is not as clear, he adds, but it appears that cutting back on seeding rates to save on seed cost has the most potential.

Steering and Guidance. Automatic steering is still gaining in adoption, and many growers made the move to a receiver capable of using the GLONASS satellite constellation for improved accuracy and less downtime. Norris adds that it’s much more efficient to get growers up and running with steering because manufacturers are making tractors steering-ready from the factory. “You really can’t order a Case or Deere tractor without the plumbing anymore,” says Norris. “It turns a full day install into a couple of hours.”

The availability of free RTK GPS from ODOT’s VRS network gave interest in guidance and steering a boost in 2010, but growers got a nasty reminder that free isn’t always free. The CORS system went down on Friday evening before Memorial Day, and because the control building was inaccessible over the holiday weekend, the system was down until the following Tuesday. “We got a lot of calls but there was nothing we could do, says Norris. It was enough to get them looking at alternatives.”

Tim Norris is a partner in CORN RTK, a central Ohio-based RTK network that offers RTK GPS subscriptions to growers within the network for an annual fee. The $1,500 per year subscription assures maintenance and upkeep to significantly reduce the potential for downtime, making the cost worth the peace of mind for many growers.

On-The-Go Sensors and Imagery. A traditional sidedress nitrogen region, Norris’ service area is a natural fit for on-the-go nitrogen sensor technology. Ag InfoTech is working with growers to test out the technology, and is using both the GreenSeeker and OptRx technologies and algorithms to see what will work best on their fields.

“We ran about 600 acres of trials in 2010,” says Norris. “We took our toolbar and did variable rate application with it on our farm as well as a few customers’ farms — we are very interested in seeing the results.”

Imagery is also being employed on an experimental basis. About 500 acres were shot at three different times of the year to provide some insight on the crops in season, and to help interpret yield maps. “The level of detail is amazing,” says Norris, mentioning that a 150-foot-long planter box failure showed up in “glorious” detail on one particular field. “There seems to be a lot it will tell you, including where to scout for problems in season. It’s also been a good tool to check against the yield map — it provides more visual detail.”

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