Pete Clark and Rick Murdock: Ag Experience Is the Key to Software Success
Except this story didn’t take place in Silicon Valley—it happened in two converted tobacco barns in western Kentucky. And the partners weren’t hotshot programmers. In fact, they had no software development experience.
“We were not very PC-literate,” says Pete Clark, one of the partners.
They were highly ag-literate, however. Clark and his partner, Rick Murdock, spent their lives in farming, agricultural science and ag retail. And they’d seen a great need for easy-to-use software that would enable farmers to keep sound agronomic and financial records to support better decision-making.
“There was accounting software, and there was some really nice precision ag software,” says Rick Murdock, the other partner, “but the basic farm management piece was missing.”
Knowing Ag, Learning Software
Clark and Murdock founded Ag Connections in Murray, Kentucky, in 1998. They’d begun working on farm management software at an ag retail chain with a programmer, but then the business was sold and the new owner shut down the project. So they left and set up shop. They hired Murdock’s brother, Larry, a programmer who’d already had success in the dot-com era, to work with them.
"Today, farms are so much bigger and more complex. We’re past the limits of what a human brain can retain and manage. If there’s no system to capture the information, it’s gone."
“Larry was our school teacher,” says Clark. “He and other developers since have made us very fluent in software development.”
Clark and Rick Murdock both say that understanding farming and farmers has been their most important asset, though.
Clark grew up on his family’s farm outside Sedalia, Kentucky, population 326. He worked there and on a neighboring farm and liked it, but when the time came, the economics weren’t right for him to get into farming. He started working for a local ag retailer out of high school, running custom application equipment and then moving up into management positions.
He loved working with farmers every day and was always interested in new technology, including a small 1980s computer called an Apple, which he used to formulate custom blends—mostly.
“Back then it was a big deal to play solitaire on a computer!” Clark recalls.
The Joy of Growing a Crop
Murdock grew up mostly in Brazil and Indonesia, where his father, a soil science professor with the University of Wisconsin, worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He saw firsthand the explosion of soybean production in Brazil and centuries-old rice patties terraced up the hills south of Jakarta.
During the summer, he’d come back to Kentucky, where relatives farmed; he enjoyed the work, the lifestyle and the joy of growing a crop. After earning a bachelor's degree in soil science from University of Wisconsin, Madison, Murdock partnered with his father on a farming operation there. He farmed full-time for 15 years before taking on an ag retail management position to supplement his income.
In the 1980s, when he and his father started farming, times were tough—17 percent interest rates, low commodity prices, two huge droughts and no crop insurance. It opened his eyes to the importance of record-keeping and planning. “We’d go to deal with the banks, and we had to have good information for them,” he says.
He also saw that the typical commercial farm had outgrown traditional record-keeping methods.
“My grandfather had seven dairy cows, and he knew each one by name,” he says. “He had five acres of tobacco, and he touched each plant 15 to 20 times. Today, farms are so much bigger and more complex. We’re past the limits of what a human brain can retain and manage. If there’s no system to capture the information, it’s gone.”
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“Ask a roomful of farmers, ‘How many of you love to keep records?’ and you’ll quickly see that none of them do,” Murdock says.
They used their ag background to make sure the software’s interface—what the user sees on the screen and how it responds to the user’s actions—would fit the way farmers think. Training and support were also critical. In their early years, they spent about half of their time on the road. Nowadays, online meeting services let them talk and remotely share screens with customers, making customer support more efficient.
They have a five-minute rule with customers: If you can’t figure out something in five minutes on your own, call and get help. The extensive support staff now fields about 15,000 calls per year. “We speak good, slow, Southern English,” Murdock says. “We’ve had customers say they can’t believe how patient our people are with them.”
Almost from the beginning of Ag Connections, Syngenta was interested in the software. It fits well AgriEdge Excelsior®, a whole-crop management program, which the company first rolled out to cotton growers in the early 2000s. The program combines the extensive Syngenta product portfolio, Land.db® software from Ag Connections, training and support from dedicated field specialists and Ag Connections staff, and risk-management features. It’s now in nearly all U.S. geographies, with more than 14 million acres enrolled and a 96 percent grower retention rate. Ag Connections has grown with the program to 36 employees.
Land.db is a valuable part of AgriEdge Excelsior. Growers can enter all crop inputs into it, including costs, and then retrieve reports that serve a multitude of purposes, including field-level profit analysis, planning, everyday crop management, regulatory compliance, and the information needs of landlords, banks, food processors and the Farm Service Agency.
Land.db can sync up with multiple computers and mobile devices, and automatically bring in data from precision ag equipment and irrigation rigs. Building in more data automation and partnering with more data sources are key priorities as Ag Connections continually updates and improves the program.
Some growers become power users right away, but with others it can take a few years to see everything Land.db can help with. “But then the light goes on and their reaction is ‘Wow,’” Clark says. With crop prices down and margins tight, the records and profit analysis become especially valuable.
In 2016, Syngenta acquired Ag Connections, but has structured it as a wholly owned subsidiary, allowing the company to stay where it is and keep doing what it does best. Clark and Murdock look forward to helping more growers capture information and use it to be more successful.
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