Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy birthday to you guys break out the cake

We served ourselves sheet cake this week to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the launch Agriculture Online. In the fast-changing environment of digital media, we thought it worth pausing a bit to take stock of where we’ve been and where this whole A-train is headed.

One quick impression from the fifteen-year flashback: What goes around comes around.

The Internet world today feels a lot like it did in 1995—familiar in its uncertainty. Back in ’95 a lot of people were skeptical about whether many farmers would ever use the Web. We hear the same sort of questions today about farmers using new tools like social media or the iPad. We shall see.

A farmer friend told me when launched that if we knew how this whole thing would pan out, we’d soon be sitting on the beach relaxing with a drink and watching the sunset.

We aren't sitting on the beach this week, but we did pause to reflect on a few things done that might be worth remembering. Our forums have helped people solve problems, like fixing a tough machinery repair or figuring out the farm bill. Folks have bought and sold millions of dollars worth of equipment in the classifieds. They’re received good advice from trusted markets and weather advisors. We’ve even helped a few marriages happen because of meetings on

Thanks to all of you for staying tuned to We’ll keep working at it, and plan to be launching of number of new features soon that will kick off a new era for the website.

Oh, and for fun, here are a few of the trivia questions we posed at the staff party this week. Answers at the bottom. First one who gets them all right, well, I expect you’ll become about as rich and famous as we have. See you on the beach.

1. Who was Agriculture Online’s first marketing advisor?
a. Ray Grabanski
b. Roy Smith
c. Joe Victor
d. Mike McGinnis

2. On what browser was Agriculture Online first displayed?
a. Droid
b. Explorer
c. Netscape
d. Firefox

3. What country’s farm magazine publisher first partnered with
a. France
b. Russia
c. Mexico
d. Canada

4. What farm organization was first hosted on the Web by Agriculture Online?
a. FFA
b. National Pork Producer’s Association
c. Practical Farmers of Iowa
d. American Farm Bureau Federation

5. Who was Agriculture Online's first weather provider
a. AOL
b. DTN
c. Freese-Notis
d. Accu-Weather

Answers: 1, b. 2, c. 3, d. 4. a, 5. c

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The magician of farm machinery

Dave Mowitz (right) on video location at AG CONNECT Expo

Dave Mowitz has pulled another rabbit out of the hat. Yesterday, I got to preview his latest masterwork, a special television program on antique farm machinery, or Ageless Iron, as Dave calls the relics of farming's glorious past.

Dave has originated a treasure trove of new ideas for Successful Farming magazine over the years, including Edisons of Agriculture (about farmer inventors), Top Shops (tours of the country's best farm shops), and All-American Farm Team (awards program for farm-raised athletes and academics), and many more.

Ageless Iron is one of the most fun and popular projects he's ever created, and the fun new TV special on that topic reflects Dave's joy in working with the material. He takes viewers on a tour a big antique farm equipment show in Pennsylvania Dutch country, interviews the "professor of paint" on how to make your restoration project shine, takes a ride on a souped-up riding lawn mower, and escorts us into the historic tractor museum at the University of Nebraska. The show debuts on RFD-TV on May 27. (See the Machinery Show section for more details on the program. And check out the listings for the regular airing of the show on Thursdays, Friday and Sunday every week. )

As a tribute to Dave's wizardry with all things Ageless Iron, I give you a top ten list detailing some of the hallmark machines he's encountered in his distinguished career. And no list about Dave would be complete without some of his own inimitable commentary:

1. First tractor driven: John Deere B

2. Favorite all-time tractor: Wow, there are so many tractors I am partial to. I always appreciated the John Deere 4430 and its Sound-Gard cab,which liberated me from having to suffer in the heat and suck in dust while riding in the old “coffin” cabs of the past. Then, too, I’ve always admired Case IH’s original Magnum series, as well as Caterpillar’s original Challenger line.

I used to drive a Ford 6000 in my teens, which had a Select-O-Speed tranny that actually worked. And when the Select-O-Speed worked it was a wondrous thing (it was the first true power shift transmission in agriculture). I can tell you a favorite tractor I would like to own some day. That would be an Allis-Chalmers G. It is a weird-looking little tractor designed for truck garden and tobacco farming.

3. Tractor with greatest historic significance: Certainly the Ferguson Type A, although the Fordson comes in a very, very close second.

4. Last tractor you restored: Cockshutt 20 Deluxe, although a friend of mine, Jeff Gravert from Central City, Nebraska, is working on painting my Grandfather’s John Deere B. Actually, Jeff has done all the restoration work on that tractor so I can’t really take credit for “restoring” the machine. I did, however, write the checks to get the tractor restored.

5. Favorite tractor you've written about: Well, now that is another tough nut as I’ve had a chance to write about so many great tractors, both old and new. But I’ll take a stab as narrowing it now to one . . .wait a minute, to two favorite tractors--one new, one old.

My favorite new tractor would have to be the Fendt 8000 series with the Vario CVT transmission. This German-built tractor (now owned by AGCO) was a wonder not only for its revolutionary transmission but also its numerous German refinements, including one of the best sound systems I’ve ever heard in a tractor. My favorite old tractor would have to be the Moline Universal. It is an ungainly anachronism, almost ugly in appearance. But the Universal was truly a technological marvel for its time (the late 1910s), introducing numerous engineering advances that would not be put to use until 30 to 40 years after its inception.

6. What equipment you would collect besides tractors: Well, I’ve got some hog oilers, some horse-drawn implements, an odds-and-ends assortment of old wrenches, several cast-iron planter box lids, some kerosene lanterns, some manually-operated corn planters, some...well, I got a lot of “some” old stuff. Oh, I also have an old-fashion wire-styled chicken catcher. I spent a great deal of time plying one of those devices in my youth.

7. Final four of "greatest tractors of all time”: Certainly the Ferguson Type A and the Fordson would top the list of my final four. Of those two, the Ferguson Type A would place number one as it introduced agriculture to hydraulically operated three-point technology and also birthed one of the most popular tractor series of all time which is the N-Series Fords (9N, 2N, 8N and NAA), as well as the hugely popular early Ferguson line of tractors.

The Fordson, on the other hand, was by no means technologically advanced, although it was one of the first production-line tractors to utilized “unit frame” construction. The Fordson gets tabbed as number two, as more of these tractors were built (nearly 850,000) than any other model in the world.

Now as for numbers three and four...hmmmm, that’s a tough one. For three, I would have to go with the IHC Farmall Regular, which earned the distinction for being first all-purpose tractor and father of the hugely popular Farmall line of tractors. And the fourth spot would be the John Deere D, which was the foundation of the Deere hugely popular two-cylinder line. It also earned the distinction of being the tractor model in production the longest (30 years).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention other top contending tractors like the Allis-Chalmers WC, Best 60, Caterpillar Sixty Diesel, Cletrac W12-20, IHC Farmall H, J.I. Case CC, John Deere 4010, Minneapolis-Moline R, Moline Universal, Oliver 70...oh, and also The Ivel. I recently discovered that this later English-built tractor in 1906 was light years ahead of its time in technological advances.

8. Most interesting new technology: Telematic control of machinery. Similar to OnStar systems in cars but far more advanced in its capabilities, telematic technology will be utilized in farm machinery to not only provide remote monitoring on equipment in the field and wireless transfer of data (such as yield maps) but will also allow farmers to remotely control major functions on tractors, planters, combines, etc. Telematic control is now in widespread use on center pivot sprinklers.

9. Name of a hog oiler you own: Don’t have the exact name for it, but it is the oiler which looks like a watermelon (I believe hog oiler collectors even call it a “watermelon type”) and which also rotates horizontally to dip up oil to coat pigs' sides and underbellies.

10. Favorite color of tractor (yeah, right): I am devoutly non-denominational when it comes to tractor colors. Truly, I appreciate all colors, although I am partial to the brilliant red used by International Harvester in the 1950s and 1960s.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How to sell your stuff

Successful Farming's marketing team lines up in Kansas City

While attending the annual meeting of agri-marketing professionals in Kansas City last week, I ran into a fellow, let’s say his name was Gordon, whom I thought I’d never see again. I knew Gordon in another life, back when he was a successful sales executive, but also knew him as someone who’d been fired a couple times and bounced around a bit in his profession.

My first thought upon shaking Gordon’s hand, was that, wow, how can he keep up that smile and firm handshake? And, he actually seems genuinely interested in talking with me. If he were selling me something, I might be buying.

Marketers must have something special to stay in a tough game, it dawned on me. So I started asking some of the marketing pros at this meeting, “What does it take to be a good marketer?”

After all, don’t most farmers have something to sell besides the commodities they produce? Maybe you sell seed, club calves, or custom field work. Or perhaps you’re selling yourself to landowners.

In about a half dozen interviews, here’s what I learned, mostly pretty basic stuff, but perhaps something to keep in mind next time you’re pitching your customers, banker, neighbor, or landlord.

Understand your customers. “This means listening, and asking why should they care,” said one marketer. I get this. One’s first impulse is what’s in this for me, rather than for the customer.

Be willing to change. “It’s easy to be offended if people don’t like your product or idea,” an advertising agency executive said. “You have to be adaptable.”

Be social and outgoing. Unless you’re a guy like Gordon for whom this comes naturally, you may have to really work at this one. But, unless you put yourself out there, how are you going get your message across? You wouldn’t believe how much networking goes on at an agri-marketing conference.

Be a quick communicator. Kristi Moss, Paulsen Marketing, gave me this thought: “You need to make your message clear and succinct.” Nobody wants a long, boring story about your product or service. Marketers have taught me you should be able to give your message in an “elevator speech”—something you can boil down and tell someone in the time it takes to go from one floor to another.

Use your intuition. Some people have an innate ability to figure out what’s really needed by their customers. “You need to link what is being sold with what is being sought,” said Paulsen’s Greg Guse. To me, this means trusting your basic instincts—what do you know best about machinery, livestock, land, and other farm matters?

I doubt Gordon thinks about all these things when he’s talking with a prospective customer. He listens to you, remembers your name, and tells a good story. He has that innate ability; selling comes naturally to him. Most of us have to work at it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mailing it in

Photo courtesy of U.S. Postal Service

What’s your snail mail like these days? Yesterday, I received four items that went something like this:

• My university alumni association is offering some sort of financial analysis for retirement. There was a small fee, I believe, and a bank involved.
• A cell phone data service is presenting an invoice for commodity marketing services that were initially offered for free. It’s entirely unclear whether I’m being billed for future or past services. The confusion seems intentional.
• A magazine is automatically renewing my subscription, which doesn’t expire until July. Unless I go to the effort of contacting the publisher, I will keep paying.
• A legal firm is offering to enroll me in a class action suit against several manufacturers of lawnmowers. The suit claims that the defendants overstated the power of the engine on the machine I bought last summer.

Is there not a common thread in all of these mailings?

The university is getting into a business outside of its mission. The data service is trying to confuse me as to whether I owe them or not. The magazine is making it inconvenient for me to end my subscription (even though that’s not my aim). And the class action group is trying to involve me in a frivolous legal action that could net me $35 some day.

I remember when waiting for the mail was pleasant part of the day's drama. But, that was back when everyone wrote cards and letters instead of e-mail.

A trip to the mailbox used to be one of the great joys of daily life. At the farm, a quarter-mile stroll to the main road was filled with anticipation, and gratification coming back, as we sorted through our new magazines and letters from family and friends. Even the junk mail seemed entertaining.

Of course, e-mail can be awful for its miasma of dirty deals, false advertising, and confounding wordiness. But, you better watch out for the U.S. mail.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Masters as pasture

Will Augusta National look as lovely as our Nebraska pasture?

My dad and I are getting set to pay a visit to the Masters golf tournament this week, an event that seems almost as well known for its setting as for the championship golf itself. For dad, who turns 85 this summer, this is a "bucket list" deal; we're looking forward to the drama of seeing the world's greatest golfers compete for the green jacket.

Of course, the Masters spotlight this year is shining on Tiger Woods. But, I'm as much interested in seeing what the ethereal grounds of Augusta National look like close up.

How can a place engineered to be so beautiful for golf and television be created from the same stuff as any old pasture—soil, water and grass?

The thousands of fans trampling the turf and golfers punching out divots must put the same sort of pressure on the resource as does a tightly packed beef herd mob grazing through paddocks, no?

I’ve had the same kind of question about how tennis at Wimbledon can be played on grass for two weeks steady, or how football games can be grinded out on on frozen turf in late autumn. And how do they keep those perfect patterns mowed on outfield grass in major league ball parks through the dog days of summer?

Augusta National is in a class of its own, though: The carefully tended dogwood, the azaleas, and pines frame perfectly coiffed fairways, shining white sand traps, vibrant greens and magical flows of water. Adding to the atmosphere are the legendary names of the natural features--the Eisenhower Tree, Rae's Creek, and Amen Corner....

Dad and I won’t be providing a lot of on-site coverage. Augusta’s environment is tightly controlled. Cameras and cell phones aren't allowed. You stay behind the ropes. There’s no running allowed.

A media contact in the golf course management trade press tells me that “everyone at Augusta is contractually prohibited from discussing anything connected with course maintenance or preparation of the course.” Steve Ethun, director of communications for the Masters, said this morning that "it's a tough week to line up an interview with the agronomics team." Understand. If Augusta were a farm, this would be harvest season with a winter storm rolling in.

So we don't expect to learn the secret formula of Augusta this week. But, Dad and I’ll be there taking in the sights Thursday and Friday, joining the crowd rambling around the ol' Georgia pasture. If you’re watching on TV, look for the two guys wearing Successful Farming caps.