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Millennial Farmer Returns

21 Mar 2024  •  Tony Kramer

You can find past podcast episodes and view show notes by visiting our Podcast website.  

Have precision ag questions? We have the answers. Find a specific channel dedicated to answering your precision technology questions: Precision Ag Answers.  

Read the entire transcript from the latest episode. 

Tony Kramer: Hi, I'm Tony Kramer, your host of the Agriculture Technology Podcast. I'm sitting down with agriculture technology and equipment experts to help you enhance your operation for today, tomorrow, and into the future. In this episode, I talk with the Millennial Farmer, Zach Johnson, at the Commodity Classic Show. We talk a little bit about technology adoption, the latest in John Deere product releases, and what's going on Zach's farm. With that, let's dive into the show. Thank you very much, Zach, for taking the time out of your busy schedule here at the Commodity Classic Show. You've been on the show before. This is a return appearance for the Millennial Farmer.

Zach Johnson: Yes, it's been a while. It was 2019, did you say?

Tony: I believe so, yes, 2019, episode 86, and we are in the 190s now for episodes.

Zach: Yes, nice.

Tony: Welcome back to the show. Obviously, I would imagine most of the world knows who you are as the Millennial Farmer, but--

Zach: I don't know about that.

Tony: [laughs] Why don't you give our listeners just a reminder who you are, what you do, and just a refresher.

Zach: My name is Zach Johnson. I guess I have an online presence that I call myself the Millennial Farmer. Basically, what I do is I go through daily life of what we're doing on the family farms. I started it all to try to relate to people about really what's going on in the family farms because I was seeing a lot of stuff and hearing a lot of things, specifically on social media, about what was happening on the farms. People had questions and concerns about things like GMOs and drain tile and pesticide and the way we treat livestock and those sorts of things.

What I really wanted to do was relate to people about the truth about what's really happening and just be completely transparent, and then when we use things like genetically modified seed or we visit a livestock farm, I can just say, "Yes, this is really out there. This is a technology that we use. Here's what we know about it, and here's the truth about why we use the management practices that we do."

Tony: If you go back, we talked about Zach was on the podcast, episode 86, back in 2019. In this episode, Zach, what I want to do is just talk a little bit about technology on your farm. What does it look like? What types of technologies are you utilizing, and most importantly, why? What does that mean to your farm, the technologies that are available?

Zach: I'm lucky in that my dad has always been very good at adopting new technology. He's also always been big on making sure that you can understand the return on investment on that technology and making sure that you can weed out the technology that is maybe something that looks like a really cool map or can show you some data that you haven't seen before, but does it translate into a return on that investment? I've seen a lot of technology out there that has come and gone that just didn't provide that return on investment, and I think that's why it left us, because farmers will see that.

It's obviously a business, so you need to make good decisions for your farm. Farming has obviously gotten so much more efficient as we've gone now with the amount of people that we're able to provide for with 1.5% of us, ultimately, that are farmers. We just keep getting more and more efficient and better at what we do. We have really hit the point where technology's taken off like crazy, like it is in every other industry. I've talked to a lot of people about some of the technology that goes into these things. We're standing next to a planter right now that has the ExactShot fertilizer on it that's only going to lay that fertilizer right where it needs to be around that seed, and it's going to save you, what, 60%, I think, on your fertilizer, two-thirds of your fertilizer?

Tony: Up to 60% of input savings on fertilizer.

Zach: We got stuff like this with that ExactShot fertilizer. We have got sprayers now that identify the weeds and only spray the weeds, and are also capable of putting down a residual chemical at the same time if you want to do that. We are soil sampling in as small of increments as you want. For us, it's all about making sure that the technology we use actually provides a return. Some of the things I've mentioned are those things, so we'll be trying this ExactShot in the spring, which is new to us.

We actually haven't had liquid fertilizer on a planter for quite some time, but I think just having the ability to place it correctly is going to be huge for us. It sold me on it, at least into trying it, so I really am hopeful. I really think that there's a lot here with the ExactShot. Same thing with the sprayers. Right now, our sprayer is not hooked up with the seeding spray. For certain operations that are growing certain crops and trying to do certain things, that'd be huge. The chemical savings on that is incredible. In the right situation, some of this technology is just unbelievable, and it just continues to unfold. Farmers figure out what's worth it and what's not, so as we go, we're really learning a lot about what provides the return for us.

Tony: You talk about it quite a bit, or sometimes on your YouTube channel, but on your farm specifically,  that technology, how do you and dad make the decision that, yes, this is a technology that we need to move into?

Zach: That's not always easy. That has proven to be difficult a lot of the time. I think the biggest thing really for us is talking with other farmers and professionals within the industry. Sometimes that means professionals that are going to be non-biased. We have an independent agronomist that we work with and he gives us a lot of good information. The company that he's with, they don't sell machinery. They don't sell seed. They don't sell chemicals.

They really are just there to advise you and tell you what they're seeing when they work with all these different farmers, what they see as a benefit. It's been it's been really beneficial to be part of groups like that and be able to compare the different technologies and say, "Yes, this is really working for these guys," or "This other technology is too expensive and they're just not seeing a return on it."

Tony: Having those conversations; talking to neighbors; talking to others in the industry. It's a valuable tool to be able to ask questions and learn from other people. Next thing I want to talk about, Zach, so you guys have-- I think it's been a couple years now, but you put a precision upgrade kit on your planter. Talk a little bit about the thought process behind you guys putting on that precision upgrade kit. What it did to value your farm and, ultimately, why did you not go with purchasing a new planter at that time?

Zach: At the time, a lot of it was, there was a cost factor in it for sure. A lot of it was just that we liked the planter we had. We liked the setup that we had. With the performance upgrade kit, we were able to take that same machine, that same frame and upgrade it from the traditional style planter to the high speed unit. We put the ExactEmerge kit on it and all of a sudden we could drive 10 miles an hour and have even better accuracy than we did with the old units on it driving five miles an hour.

It was about trying to get more efficient on the farm and be economical about it and use the unit that we already had that we knew and trusted. Through that together, we put it together. We're very impressed with it. It was very good machine, probably is what sold us on the planter that we're standing next to right now where we've got a new ExactEmerge 1775 here that we're going to be taking up to our neck of the woods here in the next couple of weeks and running this spring.

Tony: Yes. You that's exactly it with those precision upgrade kits, the ability you obviously had some life left in the bar that you had on your farm. You were able to take that bar, put the precision upgrade kit on, but get the ExactEmerge row units, be able to increase that efficiency while not having to purchase the brand new planter. You said cost at that time was a factor. You guys were able to still get what you wanted at a lower cost. Now we stand here today next to this planter at Commodity Classic. You guys are going to be taking this home at the end of the show. All of these Exact technologies on it. We got the ExactRate fertilizer system coupled with ExactShot. We've got everything there is this planter. We got the Soucy tracks on here, I see.

Zach: They're pretty, aren't they?

Tony: They are. They're nice and shiny. I don't know that they'll be that shiny once you get them to the-- [crosstalk]

Zach: Oh, they won't be. They better not be.

Tony: Yes, it really helps, I think, bridge that gap. The precision upgrade kits, it helps bridge that gap for the people that are looking for that technology. They're looking for increased efficiency or productivity, like you were saying, but they don't necessarily have to go to a brand new unit or search the country for that used unit, gives opportunity.

Zach: Yes, for sure. We did some performance upgrades also on a sprayer that we had purchased, which was a used sprayer, relatively new, but a used sprayer. We put some performance upgrades on that we have also really liked having on there. It's quite a machine. It was nice to be able to add those to a used machine also and be able to bolt some of the newest technology onto that.

Tony: It gives you guys as customers, as farmers options not to have to, again, seek out that specific piece of equipment or order a new one or whatever it may be. The options are nice. You talked in your intro a little bit about the technology adoption and everything that you did from dad to you and now you to hopefully your kids. I know on some of your YouTube videos, you got Onyx in the tractor, you got Rhiannon in the tractor.

How is the technology on your farm and how you guys utilize it, allowing them or making it easier for them to be in the cab to help you on the farm and continue to go on? I farm kid from central Minnesota myself, I remember being in the tillage tractor grain cart at that same age. To have the technology that they have now, it's got to help you in that transition.

Zach: It really does. When I was 10, 12 years old and I got in the tractor, I was taught to chisel plow with a 14 foot chisel plow, three point mounted, and you grab the big lever, you get to the end of the field and you pull the lever back and you raise that thing up and you turn around. I would always pick a spot on the corner column in the cab to line it up with where my last pass was. Push the lever down, you drop that three-point 14-foot chisel plow back in the ground, and you head to the other end.

When my kids were 8, 9, 10 years old and I was thinking about that, it worried me a lot because we weren't running three-point mounted 14-foot chisel plows anymore. Now we're running a 55 foot field cultivator in a 500, almost 600 horsepower tractor. It was like, "Man, how do you put a 10, 11, 12, year old kid in that?" It made me really nervous but the funny thing is I think it ended up being the opposite, because when I put my son in there for the first couple of hours, I know how cliche this sounds and it makes me feel old and sound old but it was like he understood the computer and the technology and the GPS.

It clicked with him. He got it. It was like even though this thing is 55 feet wide and I'd feel like if I was that age, I'd be swinging that out in the fence line and knocking it into trees, no, it was like he just grasped it better. It was easier for him to see what was going on that screen than I thought it would be. It's cool. I think there's a lot of technology out there that does allow for things like that, make it a little bit easier.

We've got the app on our phone where we can watch the machines and I can see if my son is out there running. I can see the speed he's going. I can see how much fuel he's got left. I can see what the tractor is doing. I can see how much of the field he's got done. It's a nice peace of mind to be able to look at that and see what's going on. I can I can sit on the beaches at Key West and he can be up here doing the work and I can watch him and make sure he's doing it right.

Tony: That's a good point that I didn't even think about is the added technology of the operation center. Operation center mobile being able to make sure things are going good, not necessarily to always be peering over his shoulder but you as dad, you want him to be safe make sure things are getting done. You also as the farmer, as the farm owner, you want to make sure things are getting done in an efficient manner, and he knows what he's doing and he's doing it right. Coupling the hardware and the technology within the machine as well as the operation center mobile, so that's really cool to hear that too, that you're utilizing that.

Zach: I got to go tell a story based off that. When I was his age after dad taught me how to run that 14-foot chisel plow, I started getting bored sitting out there going back and forth that whatever it was, four miles an hour, 3.8, whatever it was. I figured out real quick that you could pull that lever just right and you could still make the ground black but you could drive like six miles an hour. Dad figured that one out pretty quick. If he'd have the app, he didn't know how fast I was going. He just came on the radio and chewed me out.

Tony: Yes, the older generation, they had that sense of, "Zach, I know you're going too fast."

Zach: I was getting way too many acres done. He knew something was up.

Tony: Yes, exactly. A little fun fact: so mine wasn't three-point mounted but a 14-foot chisel plow was the first ground working tool that I got to use as well. I think it was a 4650 front assist tractor with a 14-foot drawn chisel plow behind me.

Zach: There you go. That's probably pretty close to what everybody learned in from our generation.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. We're here at the Commodity Classic. We're standing by your planter with the new technology but we've also got some other items that John Deere, they released, they launched. We got the new 9RXs. We got the air seeders. We got the combines, all of that type of stuff. Tell me your thoughts on this new John Deere product launch and everything they're bringing to market.

Zach: This is an impressive booth right now. When I saw how big this area was that they've got set up, they didn't hold anything back this year. They got a lot of stuff sitting here. They got the 9RX sitting over there. It is a monster. We all know it's over 800 horse, but then you actually go look at the machine and it's a completely different machine. That is one big thing I have not gotten over to see the combine yet. I'll be looking at that either as soon as we're done here or tomorrow. I'm excited to be standing in front of the planter here too and see the planter with the ExactShot on. I know a little bit about it, obviously, but not a lot, so I'm hopefully going to go talk to them a little more about that too.

Tony: Absolutely. You're right, the 9RX over there, it's obviously big horsepower but the tractor itself, the size, massive. Those S7 series combines, they look beautiful. They got that x9 look to them but it's still that smaller that S series combine. A lot of good things happening there. New front-end equipment. I know you don't have an air seeder but they've got air seeders, new air carts seeders, the C series air cart, so a lot of good stuff happening here.

A lot of interesting pieces of equipment. As we wrap this up, Zach, again, I just want to thank you for the time. Before I let you go, what excites you the most  about agriculture and ag technology today and looking into the future? When you hand the farm or if one of your kids takes over, when you hand that over to the next generation, what does that look like for Zach Johnston, the Millennial Farmer?

Zach: I think more efficiency is always one big thing, but we talk about that a lot and for good reason because we've done such a good job at getting more efficient. One of the big things is I really believe there's a lot of opportunity within agriculture right now to sort of tweak the operations in unique ways and hit some niche markets. Whether it's direct to consumer or something along those lines, that's not going to be for every operation. I really think that non-farming consumers got so disconnected from agriculture because they never had to worry about it.

There always just was food in the grocery stores for them. Hardly anybody does farm anymore. They got so disconnected and it seems like now there's been a resurgence of consumers wanting to know what's going on in the farms and wanting to know the farmers personally. Look at the popularity of farmers markets within the big cities. I really think there's new unique opportunities out there for the operations and the farmers that are willing to get creative and look for that kind of thing and maybe tweak the operation a little bit to find something like that.

There's got to be a million examples that I can't even think of that I'm sure will pop up, but that's one of the big things for me, is I really think farming is evolving in that direction where people are going to become more connected again. Along with that, hopefully, they see the efficiency and the good job that we're doing. When they get connected, they'll see why we use the practices that we use because you and I both know that we also eat the food. We drink the water. My kids swim in the lakes. If we don't take care of the natural resources, that affects me before it affects anybody else.

Tony: You're spot on there. I totally agree with you that the more we can learn, the more we can do, the more we can change just across the whole ag industry is going to help that next generation. It's going to help the consumers know better, understand more, all of that. I just want to again, thank you, Zach. Standing next to this planter that you're going to take home, I'm a planter guy. This thing is amazing. I know you're going to love it. The ExactShot technology.

You talk about doing better, being good stewards of the land, taking your inputs, your in-furrow fertilizer, only putting it on that seed, saving 60% of your in-furrow fertilizer costs, all of that stuff. The technology is there for a reason. It's going to be great. Again, thank you, Zach, for taking the time at the Commodity Classic here to talk to me, talk to our listeners a little bit about what you're doing on your farm. If you haven't gone out, watched Zach's YouTube videos. Where can people find you? Where can they see what you're doing?

Zach: The first place would be on the YouTube channel. That'd be the Millennial Farmer YouTube channel. You can find me on just about every platform as the Millennial Farmer. By the time they hear this, I don't know if I'll have my Facebook page back or not. Don't know if it'll be there or not. By the time they're hearing this, it might be gone forever.

Tony: Yes, I heard that was some fashion something.

Zach: Yes, I'm a fashion model now. Not me personally, but it's a page dedicated to some sort of a fashion blog thing. No, it's not me.

Tony: It's all the other social channels, you're out there as the Millennial Farmer. Congratulations on everything you guys have done with your YouTube channel, your social media. Everything you do in the ag industry, Zach, is great. It's great for us from equipment dealers and it's great for the consumers and other growers out there too. I talked to other growers and they often bring you up about what you're doing, the technology that you're trying or adopting on the farm. It helps us all. A big thank you to you guys and your wife, Becky, for all that she does behind the scenes. You guys do a great job.

Zach: Yes. Thank you. I appreciate that.

Tony: Please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many podcasting apps that we're streaming this out to. It's on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, as well as many others. While you're out there, drop us a review. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Instagram, and X, and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on X @RDOTonyK.

Tony Kramer

Tony Kramer is the Product Manager of Planting Technology and a Certified Crop Advisor at RDO Equipment Co. He is also the host of the Agriculture Technology podcast. If you have any questions for Tony or would like to be a guest on the podcast, you can find him on X at @RDOTonyK.

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