John McLean got a tip from his neighbor last year that he should start working with Growers to maximize the yields on his 250-acre farm in Robeson County.
The Raleigh-based company, which was founded by N.C. State University alum Steven Valencsin four years ago, collects data from the farmers it works with. Using the information, the company presents farmers with a 12-month plan for managing their land, with solutions that range from new managerial practices to using technology to identify cost-cutting measures.
Growers uses a farmer’s equipment, such as yield monitors and variable-rate equipped planters, as well as its own equipment – organic matter, electrical conductivity sensors and spatial management software – to collect, view and analyze farmland data.
Before working with Growers, McLean, 36, was bringing in 100 to 120 bushels of corn per acre. This season, his first with Growers, he’s seeing about 200 bushels of corn per acre, with some producing as much as 300 bushels per acre.
“We produced the best home crop that we’ve ever produced,” said McLean, who has been farming for 15 years.
Valencsin, 27, founded Growers after noticing a disconnect between what farmers were doing with their technology and what they could be doing. The company started in Guilford County but moved to Raleigh this year to be closer to N.C. State and other agritech companies.
“Being neighbors and gaining access to new information as it’s coming right off the lines is helpful,” Valencsin said.
Growers works with farmers in seven different states, from North Carolina to South Dakota, managing about 80,000 acres across the U.S. The company’s acreage under management has grown by about 50 percent in the last year, Valencsin said.
Growers says farmers who have hired the company have seen anywhere from a 17 percent to 120 percent yield increase in one season.
“There were a lot of farmers that were struggling to put all of the pieces together and to figure out how to make all of this new state-of-the-art technology work for them instead of against them,” Valencsin said.
Growers operates much like a consulting group. The company develops a plan and then charges $8 to $25 per acre depending on a farmers’ needs. The aim is to improve farmers profits through increased yields and lower production costs.
The company continues to work with farmers such as McLean over the 12-month implementation period. Valencsin and his 8-person team travel most days to work with the farmers in person, assessing the progress being made.
“We have taken an on-farm approach while we feel like the industry is trending towards hands-off,” Valencsin said. “We believe that in order to really help a farmer, you need to be on a farm.”
McLean said Growers doesn’t have any relationships with specific brands or equipment makers, which made the working with the company appealing. The company works with what the farmer already has.
About 75 percent of the company’s business comes from farmers in the Southeast, which made the move to be closer to N.C. State’s large agriculture program even more appealing.
“Farmers in the Southeast are treated like a redheaded stepchild, and they’re the last ones to get to the table,” Valencsin said. “We’re interested in helping them do their best, and we think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
But despite the growth, it wasn’t until this year that the company decided to invest in marketing. Before, all of their farmers found the company through word-of-mouth.
“Most of the farmers who we approach or who approach us are typically early adopters,” Valencsin said. “They spent a fortune on buying the latest and greatest technology, and they have no idea how to make it all work together.”
The company’s website now features a “Proof It Works” section that includes case studies and testimonials from current clients.
Trying to efficiently use the resources available is the best way for farmers to continue to be profitable, said Jim Dunphy, a crop science professor at N.C. State.
Dunphy advised Valencsin while he was a student at N.C. State and advises the company now. He does not have a financial stake in Growers.
“Our farmers today are feeding a lot more people than most people would have thought 30 years ago,” Dunphy said. “And we will not bring more land into cultivation, so we’ll need to increase the yields on the land that we currently have.
“Some of that comes in making use of the resources we have available, which is exactly what Steven is trying to do.”
This is where precision agriculture can help, Dunphy said, collecting data on what the yields are for each acre of land.
“If you see a spot with growth that isn’t the same as the rest of the field, you can come back to the same exact spot with a herbicide sprayer or an insecticide sprayer or with whatever you need to get back there,” he said.
Valencsin said that while he was studying agriculture in North Carolina, he saw a grim outlook for farmers.
“Right now, farming is a very low-revenue environment,” he said. “These farmers, they don’t have really an option. They’re not like ‘OK, farming’s tough this year, let’s go out and get another job.’ If the industry crashes, they can’t do that.”
Valencsin said he’s hoping that his company will help farmers adapt and better prepare for industry lulls.
“One of the two ways that we help them do that is by helping them control costs and maximizing yields because those are the only two tools they have to work with,” he said.
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