He’s flying essentially solo these days with business support from his wife Jennifer, but Erich Eller has big dreams for his precision agronomy consulting service, ForeFront Ag Solutions. He can visualize clearly a pathway to steady growth, a full-time support staff, and satisfied grower customers, pleased with the value Eller creates and open to new ideas.
Based 20 minutes west of Ft. Wayne, IN, in the town of Huntington, ForeFront’s business philosophy through its first three years has mirrored its founder’s values — be forward-thinking about agronomy and technology adoption, but build it on a foundation of sound practices and valid data. “That’s why we called it ForeFront, because I always want to be two or three years ahead of the industry,” says Eller. “I like to be the tester, the dreamer, and bring products and services in where they are usable.”
What’s enabled ForeFront to grow and thrive as a two-person operation has been the judicious use technology. Eller has streamlined data and logistics by working with compatible systems from the get-go, and being clear on the value propositions available to customers.
Eller had the benefit of broad agriculture experience when he decided to go out on his own as a consultant. Following graduation from Purdue in 1997, he began working at an agricultural retailer and got to experience the burgeoning precision technology market up close. He then shifted to seed, working as an agronomist for seven years in Indiana, before moving to an equipment dealership in 2010.
A young family and the pressure of frequent travel made an offer from a local John Deere dealer very appealing, so he made the move. It was also his first glint of the future of ag technology. “Seven dollar corn and $15 beans drove a great boom in equipment sales,” he says. “Self-steer tractors, high-end global positioning, in-cab monitors — it was all flying off the shelves. But the growers were not doing much with it. I knew there was much more that could be done that they were not utilizing.”
His slow burn on the idea of creating a business to help growers extract more value from precision services finally came to a head one day over lunch with his wife on break from the equipment dealership he was working for in 2014. “When she, who is usually my sounding board for my ideas, said she was all in, we were on our way.”
The underpinning to ForeFront is what Eller calls a “systematic approach” to consulting, starting with building on the grower’s existing operational efforts. “We won’t come in and tell guys what to do or not to do,” says Eller. “We try to take what they do and enhance it further. As the relationship improves, I can begin to bring some new ideas to them.”
He is also striving to more deeply understand field variability on a more granular level. He’s a zone management enthusiast, with a passion for finding the reasons for the “zones within zones” where mysteriously high or low performing parts of fields might contain secrets to be learned and managed.
Eller admits he’s benefitted from working through three very distinct growing seasons: a muddy and wet 2014, a bone dry 2015, and a more typically uneven 2016 — which has helped him run his ideas, practices and systems through their paces.
A Web of Knowledge
Along with the requisite hard work and persistence, Eller is able to maintain and grow business by utilizing products and companies that deliver both value and connectivity. Eller chose SST as the center of his information hub, from which virtually every software program can connect and move data. “SST Summit is my desktop-laptop system, and the AgX data platform is the translator,” he says. Everything he uses is able to pass data through AgX to keep data accessible, compatible and valid.
His choice of foundational field data starts with his Veris rig to collect EC and organic matter data, although he’s bucked the majority view on fall soil testing. “I’ve chosen to do my sampling in the spring. It has given us more consistency as far as time management and more consistency in for year to year as to when we sample, which leads to more accurate soil testing,” he asserts. Eller runs the Veris rigged with GPS to collect topography data as well.
Eller disdains the “averages” approach — he works to understand both the positive and negative anomalies in the zones, and ensure that as much of the field is maximized as possible. This involves soil and tissue testing to weigh up crop vitality and soil fertility throughout the growing season.
One key goal is nitrogen optimization, and an important tool has been the Adapt-N system. Adapt-N is essentially a proprietary algorithm that provides nitrogen recommendations for a given field, but which requires spot-on management and field data be input on the front end. “I start this with the farmer’s plan – expected yield, and fertilizer prep that’s been done, and if a stabilizer was used,” says Eller. “The next part is soil and tillage, drainage, depth of till, and any manure application. Add in weather data, and the end of the day we get a nitrogen recommendation for the field.”
Over the three seasons he’s used the system, Eller has grown in confidence with the Adapt-N recommendations, which have provided solid front-end decision making tools. In particular, in wet and highly variable years the recommendations helped identify nutrient deficient areas at a time when action could still be taken.
Even in relatively “quiet” seasons, Eller feels confident that Adapt-N has delivered value. “We still do some tissue sampling to ground truth the recs in season, and the Adapt-N folks have allowed us some freedom to change some things based on what we are seeing locally,” says Eller.
Return on investment has also been a big focus for Eller and his clients. Last year, Eller started slicing and dicing the financial performance of zones in farm fields using the AgSolver tool, which is also seamlessly compatible with SST and the AgX data platform. AgSolver can bring in more than 200 potential operational and field variables, and be used to run scenarios that paint a picture of the field ROI under each plan.
In one case, Eller ran two scenarios for a grower client based on an Adapt-N variable-rate nitrogen recommendation for a 96-acre field, and the same field straight-rated as it had been the year before. “At the end of the day, the straight-rated nitrogen lost $4,700, while the variable-rate application plan paid the bills and generated an $862 profit,” said Eller.
Farmers can get in the scenario game using AgSolver too by buying a subscription and changing out variables. “I have all their planting and yield data, so I put it in for them in the background. They can click on and set their budget, what they plan to sell the crop for, the cost of equipment, insurance, dry handling — really just about any variable you can imagine. Using this we can start to construct scenarios for home run, most likely, and worst case so we can plan better and manage risk.”
Eller also chose to invest in a drone, choosing AgEagle for both its capability and compatibility with the AgX platform. The overall system is powered by Botlink, a software program that delivers a stitched image into SST Summit which can then be used via SST’s Sirrus app for field scouting. “It delivers NDVI imaging to provide a view of crop health, and we can move that imagery into an iPad to identify and try to diagnose field issues.”
Sometimes it’s water, sometimes it’s an insect pest — sometimes when you see an excessive patch of greenness it turns out to be a thistle patch, something that happened to us last year,” he continues.
The jury is still out on payback with the drone, but Eller is looking into adding different cameras and sensors that will allow it to do other things. “We are on the forefront with this technology and we’re looking at ways to use this tool better.”