By Diane M. Calabrese / Published March 2020
Steam clean and fumigate farm equipment? Yes, that’s a precaution recommended to prevent the spread of the golden nematode beyond its quarantine area in New York State.
The larval stage of the golden nematode bores into potato roots—and related plants, such as eggplant and tomatoes—to feed on plant fluid. The plants wilt and do not produce. Firm hygiene practices coupled with planting varieties of resistant potatoes have allowed the pest to be contained. (The nematode is a prolific multiplier, which reproduces with hundreds of pinhead-size eggs.)
Even without quarantines in place, farm machines must be cleaned. Clean machines run smoothly and perform tasks better. When clean, the machines do not transport weed seeds and pesticide residues from field to field.
Farm structures—barns, silos, troughs, out buildings, poultry houses, etc.—must also be cleaned. Stricter environmental requirements add to the need for professional cleaning equipment and wastewater treatment on farms. Exacting protocols for farms that seek organic certification boost the need still more.
The entry of new growers into the farming sector, such as field-to-table restauranteurs and city rooftop vegetable gardeners, adds to the possibilities for manufacturers, distributors, and contractors in our industry. The possibilities are big and small. Moreover, the possibilities to serve the industry may be outside farm acreage itself—say, at a repair shop.
“With the agriculture businesses becoming so large, equipment follows,” says Karl Loeffelholz, dealer division manager at Mi-T-M Corporation in Peosta, IA. “We are seeing a lot of really nice repair shops throughout the Midwest, where a hot water pressure washer is as common as a heater in our house.”
Loeffelholz explains that those engaged in farm cleaning also expect tools to be optimally designed. “Stationary natural gas systems mounted up on mezzanines with remote controls and hose reels located at their convenience” are popular, for example.
There’s often a big misconception about customers in the agriculture industry, says Chad Caprai, general manager at Viking Industrial Systems in Caldwell, ID. It is that their needs are limited. Dispel the notion that they just wash tractors, because such cleaning is only a tiny component.
Caprai reminds us that farms of many sizes make up the agriculture sector. Small and medium farms require great flexibility from their owners and operators.
“Ag customers are stretched very thin,” says Caprai. “They are businessmen and -women one minute, engineers and mechanics the next—and somehow they are botanists in between. They want to have the fewest headaches possible.”
Demonstrated helpfulness wins a long-term customer. “Build a relationship when the ag customers have time, and fix their problems quickly and fairly when they don’t,” says Caprai. “Prove you care about their unique operation. Earn their trust, and they’ll be a customer for generations.”
Unique is the thing to keep in mind. The agriculture industry is truly diverse. (We review some of the numbers in the next section.)
Like every industry, matching the customer to the tool or approach that works best is where a selling opportunity begins. “Hops growers need hot pressure washers with flat surface cleaners,” says Caprai. “Their drying pads get coated with a sticky residue every year.”
One never knows what the next opportunity might be. “One of our customers wanted to use a hot pressure washer to clean skulls for taxidermy mounts instead of paying to have them ‘beetled,’” says Caprai. “It took a couple of tries to find the perfect mix of volume, pressure, and temperature to strip and clean quickly without removing detail.”
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture compiles an annual summary of the scope and number of farms and farmlands. The most recent summary available as we write is for 2018 (published April 2019). We tapped it for information highlighted in the three paragraphs that follow. (See www.nass.usda.gov for more statistics.)
Although acreage and number of farms decreased between 2017 and 2018 (down 870,000 acres to 899,500,000 acres and down by 12,800 farms to 2,029,200), the average farm size increased a bit (up two acres) to 443 acres.
NASS lumps farms into classes by sales. More than 51 percent of farms ranked in the smallest sales class, making only $1000 to $9,999 in sales in the year, though they hold only 9.4 percent of farmland. Only 3.9 percent of farms sold more than $1 million worth of products in 2017, but they utilized 25.3 percent of the country’s farmland. There are farms in every one of the 50 states.
Iowa had the most farms (11,100) in 2017 and 2018. Illinois was second with 8,000 farms in 2018. California, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin all had more than 6,000 farms in 2018. Arizona—with only 530 farms in 2018—had the most land in farms and the biggest average farm size (19,434 acres). And 410 of the farms in Arizona fit into the highest economic class of farms with $1 million or more of sales.
Arizona stands as an exemplar of what irrigation and sunlight can do. The town of Yuma calls itself the nation’s “winter salad bowl”—the season in which it supplies 90 percent of leafy greens to the country. Even red durum wheat (for pasta) is being grown in the state of Arizona, though the state highlights its focus on cattle, citrus, and cotton.
For manufacturers, distributors, and contractors not yet selling to agriculture in their state, a good starting place to get to know local farmers is the state’s department of agriculture website. See the overview for Arizona as an example of what can be learned at agriculture.az.gov/sites/default/files/AZDA_GuideToAZAg-R5.pdf.
NASS defines a farm as any place that produced and sold more than $1000 in agricultural products in a year. (NASS includes government payments in sales.)
The definition of a farm that NASS uses has generally been the same since 1974. It includes experimental and research farms as well as ranches, Indian Reservations, and more. There have been changes to the definition, such as the addition of maple syrup and short rotation wood crops to the category of “farm” in 1997. (The addition was part of a reworking of the North American Industry Classification System, NAICS.)
Products and services from our industry are needed across the agriculture sector, but let’s review a few examples of possibilities that should not be overlooked.
Greenhouses must be cleaned. Otherwise they turn quickly into a Palm Springs resort for insects, complete with algal-green walls.
Tables, containers, and irrigation systems must all be cleaned before each new season of greenhouse growing begins. Pressure washers are often put into service, and there are opportunities for distributors and contract cleaners. Manufacturers help with cleaning solutions developed specifically for greenhouses and customized built-in systems for cleaning.
True, there are big structures—milking barns, equine stables, silos—that must be cleaned on farms. When considering how to sell or sell more, think through the entire layout of farms. If there are food handling (e.g., sorting) tables in use, they must be cleaned. Many farmers use a pressure washer they own, so distributors can find a niche for sales and service. Bigger farms may contract with power washing companies to come in periodically.
Get to know the regional and local farm economy to locate potential customers in agriculture. When doing so, keep pace with the changes in farm practices that may lead to ways to serve.
Habitat restoration, minimal disturbance, and acute environmental awareness are now the norm. The result is tie-ins that may be surprising.
Smithfield Foods Inc. is one of the largest hog producers in the county. In partnership with Roeslein Alternative Energy, it has undertaken a manure-to-energy project. At Ruckman Farm in Missouri (the first of nine planned sites), manure lagoons now capture biogas. The biogas is cleaned and compressed to pipeline-quality renewable natural gas. In short: Pipe-line (and digester) cleaning may soon be an opportunity on hog farms.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highlights the manure-to-energy project at www.epa.gov/agstar/project-profile-ruckman-farm as one of many ecological initiatives. And the EPA website is a good place to gain more insight into what’s being funded on farmland and how support might be given through sales and service.
Finally, be ready to seize opportunities that emerge from federal initiatives related to agriculture. The USDA investment in rural water and wastewater infrastructure in 24 states, which was announced August 8, 2019, is replete with possibilities for members of our industry that customize or contribute to wastewater systems.
For instance, in Montana, loans of $606,000 and grants of $1,561,000 are being made to the town of Geraldine to replace deteriorated clay pipe with polyvinyl chloride pipe (www.rd.usda.gov/files/USDAWEPNRChart_080819.pdf). Also, part of the project is the installation of an ultraviolet disinfection system and a lagoon upgrade.
In parallel with the 24 USDA projects (part of a $2.9 billion expenditure in 2019) are efforts to reduce wastewater and eliminate wastewater from entering ground water supplies. Farms require as much assistance with capturing and recycling wash water as urban commercial sites do. Assistance includes providing tools for filtration of chemical nitrates and other soil enhancers carried in wash water when machines are cleaned.
To sell to the agriculture industry, understand the cleaning needs of farmers. Then, offer to meet them.