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Tech Frontier Pioneer

January 31, 2010
By: Sara Schafer, Farm Journal Media Business and Crops Editor
 
 


The intertwining of precision ag components with farm iron seems like second nature today, but 20 years ago, the yield monitor had yet to hit the market.

Credit for the first successful on-the-go yield monitor goes to Al Myers, who founded Ames, Iowa-based Ag Leader Technology Inc., in 1992. Today, he says, half or more of the yield monitors in the world are based on his technology.

Before starting his own company and paving the path for a legacy of precision ag milestones, Myers was an engineer for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) component supplier.

"I grew up on a farm in eastern Illinois, and after graduating with my ag engineering degree I moved into the corporate world,” Myers says. "I really loved new product development, and I started wondering if I could create a product and start my own company.”

Myers kept a notebook full of ideas, but the one that rose to the top was a system to monitor yield on-the-go.

"It was so obvious to me that farmers would want this,” he says. "But its development wasn't a straight line. ”


Myers built his first test stand with a grain elevator from a John Deere 7700 combine pulled from a junkyard. By the fall of 1986, he was testing a prototype in the field on his father's combine, the same model as his test stand.
For six years, Myers tested and refined his product. In June of 1992, he left his job and devoted his entire savings to begin Ag Leader Technology. The company's only product, the Yield Monitor 2000, was manufactured out of his garage.

"For the first time, farmers could see how their crop had variable yield in a single pass across a field,” he says.

However confident he was in the product, Myers reports that in the first year, customers weren't quite ready for his concept.

 "That winter was my first farm show in Peoria. I wanted to sell my product independently with my company's name,” he says. "I hoped to sell 40, and I sold 10.”

Then, like a fan to a fire, sales picked up. By 1995, the company had sold 1,500 yield monitors, and in 1997 annual sales totaled 5,000.

"I hired my first full-time employee in 1993, but I was doing all the design work myself up until 1995, when I hired my first college-educated
employee,” Myers says.

He says working with Iowa State University students kept start-up costs low, and some of those students became full-time employees after graduation.

With the platform of yield monitor technology, Ag Leader expanded its footprint in the industry through OEM contacts and industry alliances.

"We have made our name with our own branded products, and we also maintain a successful business with OEM contracts,” Myers says. "We started working with Case IH in 1996 on their private-label yield monitor.”

Today, Ag Leader has 190 employees, half of whom have professional degrees; 60 employees work as engineers, programmers or managers.

Myers' two sons work at the company. Mike is in the display programming group, and Steve is a graphic designer in the marketing group.

The company's headquarters include manufacturing and testing facilities, which nearly tripled in 2009 with a 100,000-sq.-ft. expansion.

"This is no longer a company where I have my finger in everything. I was able to get this company started, and today's advancements have meant much more technical support. Our people today have taken this beyond what I could have,” Myers says.

Ag Leader's product line started with the Yield Monitor 2000, which was updated to the PF3000 and then upgraded to the full-featured and multiple-season InSight monitor. This past fall, the company introduced its fourth-generation product line, headlined by the Integra display. Ag Leader maintains a two-year product development timeline.

Ag Leader has also diversified its products beyond data collection. The company currently partners with AutoFarm to provide GPS correction for steering and guidance applications.

"Today, yield monitoring is less than half of what we do,” Myers says.

"Every farming operation is different: Some farmers need the highest level of precision capability, and there are those who will do less and get entry-level products. The hurdle to tech adoption is getting the farmer to believe he can operate these devices, and sometimes it just takes time for them to realize that precision ag makes good sense.”

In response, Ag Leader introduced the Edge display, which is geared to the entry-level precision ag user.

The company also offers other products for swath control on planters, spreaders and sprayers.

"The most straightforward products are the easiest to sell, and those are swath controls for implements.

Farmers can see the results in the field and can pencil out the savings provided by those products,” Myers says.

The company's only mechanical product is the electric SureStop clutch for swath control on planters.

In 2000, the company introduced its software, Spatial Management System (SMS). The SMS program can be used on desktop computers, as well as mobile handheld devices.

"We have been a pioneer in collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data, and part of our role is to help customers use that data,” Myers says. "Today, our systems can keep a whole season's data. With the first generation of product, users had to change data storage every two to three days.”

Ag Leader partners with companies across the industry, such as Kinze Manufacturing, New Leader and Norac. It is also the distributor of the OptRx crop sensor from Holland Scientific, which provides real-time variable-rate nitrogen application.

Focus on farmers. With new concepts, such as variable-rate application, being taken to the field, precision ag continues to become more high-tech and at times complex. As follow-up to product sales, Ag Leader provides customer support and hosts dealer and customer training sessions.

The company's product support call center is staffed by 30 employees.

Service calls can reach a maximum of 4,500 calls a week, and predictably the peak period lasts two weeks each planting and harvesting season.

This past fall, the company unveiled a new facility—Ag Leader Academy. The 25,000-sq.-ft. building provides specialized, hands-on training for dealers and end users.

In the U.S., Ag Leader has more than 1,000 dealers. The company sells products around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Europe, Argentina,
Brazil, Russia, Australia, South Africa and Israel.

"It's a strength that we're 100% ag focused because we're not distracted by other markets and we really know ag,” Myers says.

"Located in the Midwest, we employ sales, marketing, tech support and engineers that have an ag background. They know the things a farmer needs to do and how they can accomplish in-the-field operations,” he adds.

Since 1992, the precision ag industry has grown dramatically. As the industry continues to evolve, Ag Leader is poised for additional growth and product development.

"I always like doing something new, and there's a lot of satisfaction in knowing that my company is making technology practical for the masses,” Myers says. "My passion is always looking for the next great idea. It's been a good time technologically, with GPS and computer integration, in this industry. With what's in the pipeline, it'll continue to be interesting.” 





You can e-mail Margy Fischer at mfischer@farmjournal.com                                       

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - February 2010

 
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