Spencer Agronomy Services

Spencer Agronomy takes flight with drones but stays rooted in down-to-earth advice
Written by: 
Christine Fisher
Produced by: 
Drew Taylor

It turns out there’s a learning curve to flying a drone. Pete Crew, owner of Spencer Agronomy Services, crashed his new $30,000 drone three times this year, but he learned a lesson or two in each crash, and he learned the hard way so his clients don’t have to.

“It was a train wreck,” Crew says, laughing. “But we did learn a lot of things.”

Spencer Agronomy Services is one of the early adopters using drones to give farmers a birds-eye-view of their fields in order to assess soil conditions and improve crop yields through careful monitoring. With drones, agronomists like Crew can spot things farmers might not see walking their property—like wet areas that need to be drained, sandy soil and patches of weeds.

The information collected from flying drones allows companies like Spencer Agronomy—which works with farmers on anywhere from 10 acres to half sections, or about half a square mile or 320 acres—to give even better advice. Through the drones, Spencer Agronomy hopes to save farmers, who are struggling with low commodity prices, even more money.

Staying out of the weeds

The drones can look at massive stretches of land, which Crew says will be especially useful against pesticide resistant weeds, a growing concern.

For years, farmers relied on strong pesticides to eradicate weeds. Now, as weeds develop resistance to even the strongest pesticides, farmers are reverting to “good, solid, agronomic weed control”—like monitoring fields and staying one step ahead. However, without knowing where the poor drainage, weeds and sand are, “it’s like steering a ship in the dark,” Crew says. 

This is precisely where the drones come in. By identifying pesticide resistant weeds early on—which can be tough to see from the ground—Crew says “we can make a decision to spray late in the year or be ready for the following year with a management plan.”

The drones are especially effective because they can spot weeds early on, or when they are hidden in tall crops like corn.

Of course, the drones don’t replace good advice.

Spencer Agronomy combines drone photos with the tailored, field-specific advice that’s helped the company grow continuously the past 14 years. In reviewing the drone photos, Crews says the company can help farmers make the complicated decisions about how to spend their time and money addressing issues like weed control.

Making a case for new technology

Because times are tight for farmers, Crew says any new approach, including drones, has to show value before it’s accepted.  

“It has to be absolutely, rock solid proven,” Crew says. “If you’re not making money and you have to justify this at $3-corn and a lot of these guys are running real close to break even this year and last year, so it’s a pretty tough sell.”

In order to make a case for drones, Spencer Agronomy does its own experimenting, often on Crew and his father’s respective farms, rather than asking farmers to foot the cost of a new approach. When commodity prices do rise, Crew believes more people will seek out drone technology. His investments now ensure Spencer Agronomy will be ready for that wave.

“As a business, I guess I see that as my education. It costs money, but you can’t get hung up on it so you don’t try things all the time,” Crew says. “You’ve gotta look at it as your cost of education. It’s not cheap; education never is.”

In its first drone test runs, Crew realized how small the window is for snapping a good drone photo—it can’t be windy and it can’t be overcast. He also found the drones on the market to be slower than he’d like. He hopes larger, fixed-wing drones that can fly 20,000 acres in a day will soon be made available to his business.

Crew also hopes the various software systems start ‘talking’ to each other. For instance, Spencer Agronomy uses data gathered with the drones to adjust the depth tractors plant seeds. In the future, Crew hopes the drones and tractors will be able to communicate and react on their own, saving  time and manpower.

Field-specific advice

Ultimately Spencer Agromony’s job comes down to offering advice tailored to each farm, and drones are among many technological advancements. There are other new technologies emerging—like crop modeling, which collects massive amounts of data from a wide swath and attempts to make predictions based on that—but they are in their infancy.

“Crop modeling can say, okay, we had a wet spring, so the trend line on a wet spring would be x for planting conditions, but it’s looking at it from a 90,000-feet perspective versus somebody standing in the field,” Crew says.

Crew is hesitant to generalize farming patterns as there are endless factors that vary from field to field. Until crop modeling is fine-tuned and can give farmers practical guidance, Spencer Agronomy will invest in the technology that aligns with its business model: providing good service that varies as much farm-to-farm as the land does. For starters, that will include drones.

“Anytime you get out in the field and work with a guy on a field basis, it’s better,” he says. 

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