In the Field: Catching Up with RDO’s Precision Ag Manager, Dick Muhlbeier

Smart Apply is fortunate to be represented by outstanding agriculture equipment dealers. Among them is RDO Equipment Co., a certified John Deere dealer with locations across nine U.S. states. RDO is among our highest-performing dealerships, and we were curious about what they are doing to get more of our systems in the field. To find out, we chatted with RDO’s Dick Muhlbeier about the company, their high-value crop growers, why they added the Smart Apply System to their product lineup, and the excitement he has about precision ag technology and the future.

SA: At a time when many people bounce from job to job, you’ve spent your entire career with RDO. That’s impressive!
DM: Yeah, it’s hard to believe I’ve been here 27 years. I started as an apprentice out of high school. RDO had an Access Your Future program in Walla Walla, Washington, where I grew up. I was interested, so I signed up and started training as a technician. In the early 2000’s, precision agriculture practices were growing in popularity. I was fascinated by the technology, and it seemed like a career I could grow with. So I transitioned into a precision ag specialist. Over the years, I’ve become a consultant to growers, helping them solve problems and become more efficient and productive. With all of the innovation we’re seeing in agriculture, my job still excites me to do this day.

SA: RDO has 75 stores. What’s driven RDO’s growth over the years?
DM: RDO is a pretty amazing company. We’re in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, and Texas. The growth is fueled by our focus on our stakeholders: customers, the communities we serve and our team members. RDO may be a big company, but what makes us shine is our willingness to do what it takes to help growers. Each store has decision-making power so we can be flexible and responsive to the unique needs of our growers. It also helps that the business is diversified between agriculture and construction. There are ups and downs at times, but when we’re meeting the needs of our ag or construction customers, things are really good!

SA: Much of RDO’s specialty crop business is in the Pacific Northwest. What’s your focus?
DM: With 300-plus different crops in the Pacific Northwest, I’m not sure there is a focus. (Laughs) We have apples, grapes, hops, cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, blueberries, hazelnuts, and also vegetables like onions, potatoes and carrots. Of course, we also support row crops, corn and wheat, and high-quality hay for export.

SA: As you work with your specialty crop customers, what issues do they talk about most?
DM: In almost every conversation, they’re talking about input costs like chemicals, the shortage of skilled labor, water, and increasingly, government and environmental regulations. You can control the first three to some extent, but it’s hard to control regulations. We have many opportunities to help growers find solutions through precision agricultural practices optimized by technology.

SA: RDO was an early adopter of Smart Apply. What attracted you to the technology?
DM: In previous years due to a lack of options, we’d adapt existing technology developed for mainstream row crops and use it for specialty crops. We also adapted equipment for the unique growing environment of the Pacific Northwest. When Smart Apply came along, what we liked and continue to like is that it’s specifically for specialty crop growers and solves many of the  issues we just discussed.

SA: RDO invested a lot of time upfront with Smart Apply before taking it to customers. Tell us about that.
DM: The chemical savings Smart Apply delivers were already proven, but we still needed answers to these customer questions:

  • Does Smart Apply solve the problem of pest and fungus control?
  • Does it provide effective coverage to get the job done?

We understood we needed to show Smart Apply’s efficacy plus its chemical and cost savings. The system had to protect crops effectively. So Dave Del Moro, our agronomist Erin Hightower, and I began a year-long process of extensive field trials to prove the technology did the job as good as or better than traditional spraying. Once we proved to ourselves that it did, we were comfortable moving forward with the Smart Apply system with growers we work with.

SA: Who bought into the Smart Apply System first?
DM: Definitely the hops growers. Smart Apply is a no brainer for them. The bines start out small and spindly and grow to 20 feet with thick foliage. The plants grow quickly so each time you spray, it’s something new and the sprayers have to be reset. Smart Apply is a game changer as it sprays individual plants based on what the LiDAR sees. As the bines grow, the system automatically adjusts. Hops have the shortest ROI because the chemical savings are so high. One grower bought 20 Smart Apply Systems and tonce the system was on-boarded and they started realizing the benefits, they bought another 15. When neighbors see those efficiency gains and cost savings, they want the same benefits, too. Smart Apply is really gaining ground in hops.

SA: How have other crop growers responded to Smart Apply?
DM: Growers of apples, cherries, stone fruits, tree nuts, grapes have responded well to field trials where they can see it in action and ask questions. They are taking the Smart Apply System a hard look.

SA: What makes growers say, “I need a Smart Apply System?”
DM: Obviously, it starts with the chemical savings and the proof of crop protection. Then it circles back to labor and efficiency gains. One of the first questions out of a grower’s or ranch manager’s mouth is: “Can my people use the Smart Apply System?” We show them how to program the system so it’s just a matter of operators pushing a button to spray—that’s great for adoption. They see they don’t need skilled operators to run Smart Apply, they see they’re filling their tanks half as often, and they see they’re covering more acres in day as a result. The labor and efficiency gains are hard to ignore.

SA: What do growers think about Smart Apply’s data component?
DM: Smart Apply’s data solution is an added bonus of the system, but it sometimes it gets overlooked without the proper training and support. We definitely help growers discern insights they can glean by using the system to help their operations. When we’ve worked with growers to integrate their Smart Apply data with their John Deere Operations Center, they gain a significant lift as they cross data points from different fields where soil conditions or moisture levels vary. We’re scratching the surface of data insights Smart Apply can provide and its potential impact on Pacific Northwest growers.

SA: Is data under-rated?
DM: The Smart Apply System hasn’t been fully realized yet. That potential is what keeps my team going, engaged and excited about Smart Apply. We believe it can be an example of how growers can efficiently collect data for regulations. The Smart Apply System documents every time you spray. It captures the who, what, where, and when, and gives the grower consistent, accurate documentation of what’s going on in their fields. As a result, growers don’t miss data they need. Smart Apply’s data highlights growers’ sustainable chemical applications.

Our specialty crop growers want the the ability to show consumers and corporate buyers their environmental stewardship practices. Working with these growers, we’ve learned having the data to back up chemical and water reductions makes the environmental impact real to consumer and corporate buyers. Crops grown sustainably increases value in the eyes of consumers.

SA: We recently did a trial and video shoot of a Mini Global Unmanned Spray System (GUSS) equipped with a Smart Apply System with RDO. What do you think?
DM: Combining Smart Apply’s precision spraying and data with the labor-savings of GUSS is a home run. These two technologies solve so many issues in terms of bringing down input costs, reducing growers’ reliance on skilled labor and documenting spraying. Then you add in the ability to refill GUSS in the field rather than sending it back to the shed, that’s really exciting as we’re able to keep the sprayer in the field and spraying. Many growers are excited to see the Mini GUSS with Smart Apply, and we have several demos scheduled this fall. The video is a good preview.

SA: RDO is a Gold Level Smart Apply Dealer. What’s your secret to success?
DM: We’ve built a very strong team around our specialty crop growers who work together to solve the pain points. With Smart Apply, we give growers the full RDO approach: Precision Ag specialists; Erin, our agronomist who has decades of experience; Dedicated sales team; and our efficient service technicians. We’re all responsible and working together to make sure each growers gains the most from their investment and realizes the maximum benefits the Smart Apply System. The Precision Ag team partners with sale team members to explain the Smart Apply System and its applications for their specific operation. After this step, our service technicians help growers install and troubleshoot so they learn the  ins and outs of the system before the season gets started. Tech adoption demands is more sustainable when the RDO team works with Smart Apply to support our growers.

SA: What’s your response to John Deere’s acquisition of Smart Apply?
DM: John Deere saw Smart Apply’s applications very early on. I figured that once Smart Apply got units were out in the field and could prove chemical savings, crop protection and sustainability advantages, John Deere would acquire the company. Frankly, with John Deere on the band wagon for specialty crops, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. It’s fantastic for RDO.

SA: In closing, what excites you about precision ag technology like the Smart Apply System and how it’s helping growers to be more profitable, productive and sustainable while working to feed the world?
DM: Smart Apply’s LiDAR and GPS are great, but what really excites me is how the system’s data solution will continue to evolve with advanced technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Right now, growers are drowning in data and often don’t have time to dig deep into the great data Smart Apply offers. Once AI and machine learning software for precision ag is readily available to integrate with current farm management systems like John Deere’s Operations Center, the insights will be incredible. This will bring a tremendous amount of value to an already invaluable system.

The Smart Apply Intelligent Spray Control System is helping growers of specialty crops transform their operations and the world for the better. To learn more about our precision sprayer and spray data reporting and analytics, visit our website. To find an authorized dealer around the world, check our dealer directory.

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