Bringing a Southern Sensibility to Precision Agriculture
Amy Winstead considers herself blessed to have gotten in on the ground floor of precision ag adoption in the Southeast.
Today, as Chief Technology Officer for Agri-AFC in Decatur, AL, Winstead manages the precision ag services the company provides to its customers in a four-state area. She joined the company in 2011, tasked with providing direction, coordination, and consistency to the precision offerings.
Those efforts have paid off. Beginning with about 170,000 acres from affiliated stores and co-ops that were already doing precision work, Agri-AFC’s AccuField program now covers 1.5 million customer acres, providing services ranging from zone and grid sampling to yield data analytics, planting and fertility prescriptions, record-keeping, moisture sensors, nematode sampling, variable-rate applications and more.
“Customer service and support have always been the number one focus and goal for our precision ag team,” says Winstead. “I don’t feel like precision ag works to its fullest capability unless you have that.
“We really pride ourselves on customization of our prescriptions,” she adds. “We don’t want anything to be cookie-cutter for our growers. If it doesn’t have the support and service at the local level, then it’s not going to be successful. You can’t paint with a wide paintbrush and make this work.”
Agri-AFC was formed in 2003 as a joint venture between Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) and WinField Solutions (now WinField United), working through existing AFC stores and the company’s own retail operations in south Alabama, southern Mississippi, south Georgia, and north Florida. Forty-five locations are currently utilizing the precision ag services.
“They are all the same customers to me,” says Winstead. “I don’t see a difference between the co-op and retail sides. For us, it’s just part of customer service and support.”
Finding Her Niche
How did Winstead find herself in this unique role? Some of it was great timing, being at the right place at the right time surrounded by the right people. The rest of it could easily be chalked up to a bit of serendipity.
None of it, she admits, were part of her original plans.
Growing up in Limestone County, AL, agriculture was in her blood. Her grandfather was an ag teacher for 35 years. Her dad also taught ag before moving into landscape design and the commercial nursery and sod business. Both were Auburn grads. So naturally (“I don’t know that I had any other choice,” she laughs), Winstead enrolled at Auburn … and majored in business.
“After the first year, I absolutely hated it,” she recalls. “I wanted to be back outside. So I sat down with Auburn’s curriculum, came across Agronomy and Soils, and said that’s what I want to do.”
She earned her undergraduate degree and stayed to work on her Master’s. Her thesis topic: Grid vs. Zone Soil Sampling. Working with Dr. Paul Mask, Dr. Joey Shaw, and others on her committee, she learned the theoretical aspects of precision ag, but, more importantly, the practical side as well — in other words, how will it benefit a farmer?
“Precision ag was just coming on the scene in this area at that time,” says Winstead. “That is what really interested me, and I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and wonderful individuals who helped shape me.”
After graduation, she spent three years as a county Extension agent in Clay County, GA. She came back to Auburn in an Extension horticulture position in south Alabama before relocating to Athens, AL, on a job move for her husband. Mask clued her in on a precision ag program that was about to open at the Tennessee Valley Extension and Research Center.
She became one of two grant-funded precision ag technology Extension agents for the state of Alabama. The rest, she says, is history.
“Auburn was so innovative, and that position was a rarity in the education sector at that time,” states Winstead. “We ran every piece of hardware and software on the market to figure out the technology and the guidance, optical sensors and imagery, then worked to figure out how growers could best use it. We had a great experience.”
Building a Cohesive Program
When she made the move from Auburn to Agri-AFC, Winstead’s role initially was to work with the North Alabama region and help the stores that were already using some type of precision ag with their customers. Within a few months, her role expanded to include all of the company’s co-ops and retail centers.
“I was hired to help make sure we had a precision ag person in-house,” she says. “I knew I had to have some type of system, either Internet or Cloud-based, that would allow me to get on my computer and help our guys four hours away with information or assistance. Something that was only on one computer was never going to work for us. We needed a whole network to implement across multiple counties and multiple states.”
Building a team of precision ag specialists to support the local retail and co-op staffs was also key.
“We don’t have a huge staff in comparison to others,” explains Winstead. “We have two people in Georgia to cover our Georgia and north Florida markets, one person in south Alabama, and two of us in north Alabama. We’ve built this team strategically. We all have our own unique backgrounds and strengths and work to complement each other.
“That’s what’s been so successful for us. It’s so critical to have that local tie-in.”
It’s important, considering the variations in what their customers need and want from the Agri-AFC team. As Winstead explains, some growers want to be very hands-on in planning and implementation. Others want access to their account and information online, but aren’t interested or don’t have the time to write their own prescriptions or manage their data.
“Both are fine,” she says. “There’s no right or wrong way to do this. My motto — and I’ve said it for years and preach it to the team — is that I feel precision ag fits everybody, but not every aspect of precision ag fits each person. Our job is to figure out what fits and how to make it work for them.”
Most of the prescription programs developed today are provided electronically to a customer’s tablet or smartphone, or login access is provided via email. But, if a grower prefers, they can still print hardcopy books.
“A lot of people want to do that to see the different scenarios we put together,” states Winstead. “They love the information. Precision ag provides so much information that’s never wasted. The more information you get, the more decisions you can make.
“Farmers are really smart people,” she adds. “They understand it. Our job is help them wade through all of the information and come out with some kind of tool or way to put it to use. We’re a big proponent of keeping information for our customers and making sure they have a copy of it.”
Likewise, maintaining good relationships with tech companies is also important. “It’s key for us to align ourselves with people who have the same mentality and will support us in turn for our customers,” says Winstead.
A Different Perspective to Precision
Winstead is confident that the adoption of precision ag in the Southeast is on par with other parts of the country. Implementation in the region, however, can be significantly different than in other areas. For starters — no soil testing for nitrogen, a key for much of the modeling done in the Midwest. And field sizes can vary from 50 to more than 1,000 acres throughout the region.
“We deal with more crops and more variability,” she points out. “Peanuts and cotton are an important part of what we do, and crops rotate field to field from year to year. Our growers will also change their minds. We may run a prescription and talk about a plan in October or November, and, by February, we’ll get a call that they’ve decided to change and plant peanuts instead of cotton or corn.
“Irrigation is the only thing that really dictates sometimes what crop goes in the ground.”
Aerial field-mapping has proven to be more difficult in the Southeast. Cloud cover and generally hazy conditions often make it tough to get a clean image.
Yet, Winstead remains excited about some of the newer capabilities, such as record-keeping. “We can now create work order assignments on the farm that tie in and flow over to a grower’s record,” she says. “It saves them so much time. And wireless data transfer has revolutionized everything. I can sit at my desk or in my car or anywhere, and send files directly to a machine in seconds.”
This development and coordination of precision ag services has become a growth generator for the outlets served by Agri-AFC. Putting a hard number on it, however, is difficult.
“We’ve tried to rely on the ROI of precision ag with our customers, showing them that overall costs haven’t really increased, but their efficiencies have,” says Winstead. “Their yields are increasing, and we can show them where those yields are coming from. The extra pounds of cotton or bushels of corn needed to pay for this is very minimal. It really puts it all into perspective.”
Where does Winstead see the Agri-AFC program going? That’s a question she lets their stores answer each year. She provides information on new products and technologies in the precision pipeline and gets feedback on what may be of interest to the retailers and their customers.
“For us, it’s about answering what our customers’ needs are,” she states. “Absolutely, we’re going to continue to move forward. There’s always room to grow, and there are always more things to learn. And we’ll continue to grow our team as we add more customers and acres.”