Member Perspectives

Retail Member Perspective: Growmark’s Zach Leiser

Among many responsibilities he has at Growmark, Zach Leiser, Senior Agronomy Portfolio Technology Manager, works with his team to help cooperative members make best decisions about their implementation of technology. He’s also intimately involved in Growmark’s efforts to establish what they call “good, clean Grower-Farm-Field boundary structure” that advance efficiency, agronomy, and customer service. Leiser answered some questions about Growmark’s field boundary initiative, and AgGateway’s role in bringing stakeholders to the table to share ideas and develop standards.

What GIS systems are you currently running, and how does it relate to Growmark’s efforts on stabilizing the farm field boundary data?

There are two system-supported tools that Growmark as a whole is going to own and fully support when it comes to GIS – Agvance SKY Mapping and Ever.Ag FieldAlytics. We’ve transitioned out of an internal legacy program as we were wanting systems that were a little more advanced and had some additional feature sets. We put out information on both systems to our member cooperatives to help them figure out what would be the best fit for them as far as features and capabilities are concerned, and once they made choice, we helped them onboard the system with training and support. From there, we let them run with those tools as their main fertility programs and main housing for their grower farm boundary.

The company is putting a tremendous amount of emphasis on the importance of a good, clean grower farm field boundary structure. Now that we are on systems-supported tools by and large, and because of integrations these tools have with our ERP system, we want to make sure we have a good, clean grower farm field boundary in place because we believe the downstream effect that comes from that structure will be tremendous.

In a perfect world, we want to make sure when our sales representatives go out and have conversations with growers that we know what their boundaries look like and where the crop is going to be planted. So, when we start doing our planning process, whether that is for fertility or seed or crop protection, we know what the total acres are and where product placement is going to be. From a procurement perspective, if we have a much better handle on what things are going to look like day to day, growers will have a much better idea of cost. And for the crop specialist, it gives them a better feel for things in season -- it does not feel like they are as reactive as they are now, trying to get blend tickets together with different chemistries.

How is this field boundary effort playing out?

I would say that we are one of the early ones from a retail perspective that recognizes the importance of a good, clean Grower-Farm-Field boundary structure and have put a lot of emphasis on it, but that’s not to say it has been a smooth street to get there. The biggest thing we are dealing with is that boundaries shift.

Even with boundaries that are relatively consistent you have a couple of factors. You have RTK boundaries that many growers and companies want to utilize to take advantage of more advanced technology on sprayers -- more specifically where RTK boundaries are imperative. That is where we want to move towards. The GIS systems that we are in today are not the most accommodating to those types of boundaries.

We also must be able to deal with unique farm field circumstances. Are we going to go out and have a couple different operations take place in the field? Or, if we are going to work in a field that is split between a couple different crops, how can we manage that field effectively in all facets of our business? Or how are we going to create boundaries for the “Home 100” that we know the farmer is going to split between corn and soybeans and the rotation will be inconsistent year to year. As we consider how to move forward to create that good, clean Grower-Farm-Field boundary, we have to structure it in a way that addresses the reality that the field operation is constantly changing.

Talk about your experience with AgGateway on field boundaries.

I am still relatively fresh to AgGateway, but once Jeremy introduced this idea a couple of years ago, I felt like my experience would provide value and that we at Growmark could step in and offer a lot of opinions on it. And then hopefully in return we would get a good amount of insight from those other companies that are using or developing systems and technologies around field boundary data collection. Hopefully we are all skating towards the same end goal, and we can come up with a structure that makes it easy to share information seamlessly across systems and makes us all better because of it.

It's good that our recent discussions led the group to agree to standardize the verbiage we use when we talk about boundaries. From conversations with Ben Craker and others it sounds like this is a decade in the making trying to come up with something that everyone feels comfortable with and confident about. There is still a lack of clarity on the ultimate end game for AgGateway as we look at field boundaries but will definitely be a deliberate process.

How does autonomy impact field boundary standardization?

Autonomy is going to be the one of the big external pushes for standardizing field boundaries, but there are already differences emerging among equipment companies about what information will be required to accept a field boundary and carry out a task. Any difference in requirements will create a barrier to moving data across different colors of equipment. People in between like our FS companies are trying to figure out what to do and are looking to me and my team for insight as to the best way to go. If they are a ”one-color” operation that’s a relatively easy call to make, but many of our companies are not single-color operations. They are relying on us to help them make a decision that will be beneficial both now and in the future, but it’s extremely difficult because we don’t know what that state of the art is going to be. We hope that through participation in AgGateway we can get a better understanding of what the direction is going to be, because we still don’t know.

It’s fun and fascinating and exciting to be in all those different conversations. But there are those days you walk home, and you just don’t know, and you tackle it again tomorrow. The field boundary issue is going to be a long one, and even if AgGateway were to come out with a recommendation for a shapefile standard, adoption would still not be a guarantee. ISOBUS 11783 is still out there, and has been for over a decade, but still many companies are not using it to their fullest extent.

All that said, with boundary structure I think it would deliver a better benefit overall if we could make this work more cohesively by bringing the industry together, and hopefully AgGateway will be able to help move this along.