While much of the conversation about bringing agricultural robotics and other autonomous technologies onto the farm often centers on producers, startups and equipment manufacturers, the focus on the developers and end users fails to include two essential sectors within the overall supply chain.
Equipment dealers and wholesale distributors are the ones making sure the machinery gets where it needs to go—and that their customers know how to use, maintain and repair their purchase after it arrives. Without dealers and distributors to facilitate connections between manufacturers and farmers, it would be increasingly challenging for both sides to do their jobs.
That’s a lot of responsibility, especially as the industry continues to embrace increasingly technical equipment that requires dealers and distributors to be savvier than ever before. Although these supply chain sectors have their work cut out for them, they are committed to helping farmers access the agtech equipment that will support long-term sustainable food production.
Joani Woelfel, President and CEO of the Far West Equipment Dealers Association, and Jennifer Edney, President of the Edney Distributing Company, share their perspectives on how dealers and distributors are moving the industry forward.
Dealers are the Manufacturer’s Eyes and Ears for What Farmers Really Want
When it comes to getting and managing agricultural equipment, growers and producers benefit from having equipment dealers on their side. The Far West Equipment Dealers Association (FWEDA) is a not-for-profit trade organization that represents agricultural equipment dealers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Woelfel, who leads the organization, understands the importance of these successful connections.
“Dealers support farmers to improve uptime by providing remote, in-house and onsite diagnostic, maintenance and repair services,” she says. “Equipment dealers and farmers work very closely so theirs is not just a transactional relationship. Dealers strive to build solid, long-term relationships with their customers because when things go wrong, it can get tense. When a farmer has a problem in the field during planting and harvesting seasons, which are driven by time constraints, weather and myriad other factors, the two groups must work well together to weather the storms.”
Part of developing strong rapport means dealers are tasked with moving in the direction that the industry is headed. FWEDA supports dealers by staying abreast of the latest technologies and investing in knowledgeable professionals who can help growers and producers navigate these complex changes. When farmers buy equipment from their dealers, they need to be able to trust that the dealer can properly manage and service the machine.
“Dealers are finding that there’s a lot to keep up with these days because there many different levels of automation,” Woelfel says, noting that dealers aren’t just tasked with understanding autonomous and precision equipment, they also must be knowledgeable about retrofits that add technology to existing machinery. “That’s a challenge for sure, but dealers are finding that their customers and the industry are going to drive what they do, what they sell and how they sell it.”
Dealers must become subject matter experts and take a deep dive into the solutions available in the market. This is often easier said than done. Manufacturers and dealers must collaborate to ensure the end user’s future success.
“Dealers have to engage with these technologies and understand the benefits to the end user,” Woelfel says. “They will have to be proficient in guiding farmers’ use of these tools with their equipment. Dealers must confident so their customers are confident in them.”
Her best advice to dealers? Embrace it. Advancing equipment technology plays an important role in agriculture and dealers are best equipped to get it into the hands of those who need it the most.
“Dealers are the manufacturers’ customer support. They are the eyes and ears for what farmers really want,” Woelfel says. “The farmers are already doing their own research, and dealers can report back to the manufacturers about what offerings are available to help farmers.”
“When dealers help farmers improve how they work, it also improves the relationship between them,” Woelfel continues. “The more dealers and farmers learn about and value automation, the better their competitive advantage. Safety and productivity gained by automation cannot be overlooked, and the dealers know that.”
Wholesale Distributors Locate Areas of Opportunity to Co-Create the Future
If equipment dealers provide a primary connection point between farmers and manufacturers, wholesale distributors are the ones creating a demand for the equipment and ensuring the dealers have the equipment, training and information they need to help farmers thrive.
Edney Distributing Company has been doing this work in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa,Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, northern Illinois, and eastern Montana for 71 years. In addition to purchasing the latest technologies from around the world, Edney Distributing seeks out opportunities to educate, support and connect with dealers and their customers.
Jennifer Edney has worked within her family’s company for the last 15 years. Lately, she’s been considering how autonomous technologies have the potential to shake up the traditional sales funnel, as well as how distributors and dealers do their jobs.
“I believe that the agricultural industry is at the beginning of a new chapter, and we are actively exploring what the possibilities are as a wholesale distributor to help usher in robotic systems,” Edney says. “It has yet to be written how long it will take for robotic equipment to be widely accepted by farmers and how the dealers and distributors will be involved to support them. Two-step distribution is the traditional model: First, a wholesale distributor buys the equipment from a manufacturer and sells it to retail dealers. Next, the dealers sell the equipment to the end users. Each business adding value as the product makes its way through the supply chain. Even though robotic equipment is a bit different than traditional equipment, but I believe we can still use the traditional funnel. That said, distributors and dealers might need to reimagine their role in supporting robotics in agriculture to respond to the needs of end users. We may shift our focus more heavily to product support, subscriptions, fleet rentals, and providing new services like assisting with field mapping or RTK signal repeaters.”
Dealers and distributors might look to companies like Tesla, where prospective customers go to a website, put down a deposit, get on a waiting list and eventually get their car. In this case, the customer does their own research, without ever going to a dealership or taking a test drive.
“Whatever the future looks like, distributors and dealers will always play a vital role,” Edney continues. “They will be educating, offering access toequipment from innovative manufacturers, and providing service and support. I don't think that will change, although I think the area of expertise needed on the staff of distributors and dealers could shift. No one is as close to farmers as dealers. They understand the needs on the farms, they are boots on the ground, and they care. Many of these relationships are built on trust over many years and sometimes generations.”
Another option is for distributors to equip dealers with a fleet of machines that the dealers provide as a service to the end users. Edney also envisions distributors providing parts to dealers who would have them on hand for technicians to ensure the robots remain active in the field. The same could also be said for batteries and chargers.
Additionally, the dealers might offer to store robots in warehouses for their farmer customers when the machinery can’t be used during the winter months in certain regions. Whatever changes the dealers experience down the line, Edney also foresees distributors pivoting to embrace this brand-new world.
“One of our roles as a distributor is to learn about new farming practices and regulations,and to helpvet new suppliers and different types of equipment,” Edney says. “We try to find innovative equipment, form new partnerships, and offer those products to the end users through our dealer network, sometimes before end users even know they need it. We need to be open-minded, curious, and willing to take some risks. think robotics will help farmers be more efficient and profitable and that this segment will create new opportunities for dealers, distributors, and suppliers to grow. I think that autonomous ag is part of the solution to the challenges of feeding a hungry world, caring for the environment, and helping farmers control cost while they increase yields.”
“Even as the industry is changing, we are committed to supporting the health of local dealers by making sure that they have access to the most innovative equipment, the parts to flow to the end users, and the training and support they need,” Edney continues, adding that Edney Distributing does this through education, equipment demonstrations, conference and equipment show participation, and one-on-one conversations with farmers, dealers, researchers, and suppliers who want to play a part in what comes next.
“We not only match people with equipment to fix specific situations, but we also match them with thought leaders, resources and technicians to try to help to solve their problems. We support dealers as they are looking for new equipment to bring into their dealerships to help grow their businesses and meet the needs of their companies or their customers. And we will continue to support the success of dealers, as technology continues to change.”
After all, agricultural robots and autonomous technologies are already here. One of the biggest things Edney underscores is that these machines no longer exist solely in the realm of imagination. Other industries are using this equipment, and cutting-edge equipment is coming to the farm, too.
“Autonomous ag robots are here, and they're here to stay,” Edney says. “We all need to play our parts to bring that equipment to market, participate in research, try new things and be open-minded. We have an opportunity to co-create the future because we're all writing this story together.”