On October 12, 2019, Mr. Dave WARRY led the class on a tour of Hoober Equipment. Getting off to a slightly late start, the tour began with a brief outline and background of the business and the employees in the particular branch we visited.
Mr. WARRY began by introducing himself, saying he began working with Precision Agriculture at Hoober’s in 2005. He followed this up, by stating how unusual it is to remain in the business so long, saying people usual spend about 18months in the industry. He says this is due to many factors, but he says there are many potential sources of frustration doing the job, such a people calling at all hours, people forgetting how to use the equipment from season to season, and the vast amount of patience required to deal with a flustered farmer who can’t move their product because of broken and malfunctioning machinery whilst waiting on repairs. Mr. WARRY graduated from Penn State after majoring in Agricultural Systems Management and technology, but after college he went to work on a farm for four years, an experience he viewed equally valuable as college. Agricultural Systems Management was not his first choice however- initially he was studying pre-vet, but saw it as, ‘a lot of work’, only switching his major after taking an Introduction to Agriculture course where the Advisor for Agricultural Systems Management (ASM).
Mr. WARRY said that Hoober’s works with Mr. James ADKINS and his irrigation technology, but each employee specializes in different equipment.
Next, we were introduced to Mr. Charlie IRVIN, who’s been with Hoober’s for a similarly long stretch time, doing service installs and working as the shops tractor and shop repairman for 12.5years.
Hoober’s itself is a family business established in 1941 and has 9 locations throughout PA, MD, DE, and VA. The third generation, Mr. Bud HOOBER is gradually being succeeded by the next generation. Hoober’s values a strong skill set over any degree. They are looking for employees with personality, ‘common sense’, ambition, accountability, and self-motivation. There are opportunities to receive on-the-job training as well as being sent around the country. Mr. WARRY did say that they struggled to find interested potential recruits. He advocates the work with electronics because it offers employees a chance to learn and advance, and is often easier on an aging body than, ‘turning a wrench’ and working solely on mechanics.
Part of the work done at Hoober’s includes troubleshooting, which according to Mr. WARRY, takes very little time, and is done with charts and by computer. Other ventures include a technology field lab and class tours like ours.
Hoober’s deals in agricultural, lawn&garden equipment, and construction equipment with automated technology. Much of Hoober’s competition strives to sell programing tools for whatever technology they’re promoting- Hoober’s programming works across brands, for any equipment they carry. The Tractor Supply Co., while very close by, is not a source of competition, as they only sell small parts- like hitches & chains- and animal feed- products that compliment what Hoober’s sells.
Automated steering is one of the most popular feature and it is used to prevent operator fatigue that often sets in a different points of a farmers 18hour day- the technology will keep the equipment running straight down the rows of a field, working at peak efficiency. Heated cabs, stereos, heated seats, and raised seating are among some of the modern-day features in the latest pieces of automated machinery. When the computerized technology was tested against a conventional, non-autonomous piece of equipment, the drivers were required to take eight hour time-outs, operating only 30minutes at a time, according to test regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The equipment Hoober’s carries is expensive. Some of that expense is simply due to the brand name. Mr. WARRY told use that John Deere is always expensive, even when purchasing the brands signature yellow and green paint. He cautioned us that John Deere equipment purchased at stores like Lowes & Home Depot is cheaper than buying directly from a company dealership, and that those cheaper pieces of equipment are often made of cheaper materials that will not last as long. Other brands we saw included Cub Cadet and CASE among others. Regardless of the brand, when purchasing a $400, 000 tractor vs. a $1, 000 lawnmower, the cost of repairs can quickly exceed the original price.
A stop in the back office revealed multiple shelves packed with service manuals- some as much as 50 years old, and still used regularly. Though the floor might have been pressure-washed before we arrive, the 25-year-old building is due for an update, with new lighting and shrubbery planned for the interior and exterior, respectively. Even with the desire to do some, ‘sprucing up’, Mr. WARRY said one of the best upgrades to the building, was the addition of AC, which made the working environment much more pleasant.
In the shop and ‘Combine Productivity Clinic’ massive repair jobs are underway on equally massive piece of machinery. Brand new tractors shipped to the Port of Delaware arrived with damage received in-transit- required $100, 000-worth of repairs incurred from a rough sea journey.
The expense is understandable when the sheer power of the equipment is compared with that of a ‘standard’ tractor- the first machine we looked at, with 20, 000lbs/ft of torque, a 50, 000gal load of manure, and capable of pulling 70, 000lbs all together, was still able to reach up to 42mph, when a factory-quality tractor may only go 38-40mph. That said, the machine would have significantly less horsepower running with natural gas. Mr. WARRY projects methane from digested animal waste and electric battery technology with hydrogen fuel cells will be the way of the future.
Even with some of the mechanics shortcoming, the data for agronomy and electronics is still making great strides. Automated dairies that record the amount of milk gathered and don’t require farms to manually latch each pump to a cows udder. Center pivot irrigation systems can be calibrated to the unique needs of different cultivars or even different varieties like corn. Every three days, satellite images come in with up to 3ft(1m.) resolution, 30-40ft wide in infrared, near infrared, and color- data that allows farmers to almost distinguish individual plants. In addition to the aerial views supplies by satellites, drones- currently in-vogue for scouting real estate- are now being used to evaluate irrigation, weeds, and nutrient application. Mr. WARRY assures us that drone don’t replace agronomists- people are still needed to use the information they provide- drones just help farmers know where to look and address problems.
Hoober’s own connectivity network includes way stations all the way out to Ohio, with 1-1.5in. horizontal and vertical GPS accuracy, allowing its autonomous software to autocorrect and re-calculate paths with great precision.
One of the machines we spent a great deal of time going over was the Quadtrac. This particular machine had been stuck in the Delaware River/ocean, submerged with water well over the cab. While Mr. WARRY repeatedly reminded us this piece of equipment was not, in fact, a submarine, he did tout it’s capacity to do a large amount of work- more than a bulldozer and dump truck combined. Initially running after being fished out of the drink, the saltwater burnt the Quadtrac’s starters and batteries. When fully operation, the powerhouse machine can travel 24mph on it’s treads with horse power ranging from 470hp up to 620hp, making it a go-to for beach reclamation and recovery, pushing sand on the dunes. They are favored by the Delaware Dept. of natural Resources and Environmental Control(DNREC). The Quadtrac cost about $480, 000, but will cost the customer $1mil for repairs and having ht mechanics re-tuned.
Certain costs of repairs can be mitigated if the customer chooses the right features and tools for the job and puts the proper care and maintenance into his/her equipment. With the Quadtrac, the Rubber-on-rubber treads generates heat, so dirt and sand are a good lubricant for those moving parts. If a customer decides to upgrade to chrome over steel, this upgrade can prevent significant wear that would usually occur in just 2-3years. 1 (relatively) small chrome part, can cost $8, 000.
Next, after a brief safety-scare- while standing in the ‘Combine Clinic’ where the mere tires of the machinery dwarfed us, workers were servicing a machine off to the side, over our heads- we headed out of the shop to allow those employees to work. Our next stop was a small field of grass where we would be able to drive three pieces of equipment- but not before learning a bit about them. A brief discussion before the highly anticipated interactive portion of the trip- almost like grace before a meal…
First there was the Sprayer– a 120ft. Class 4 vehicle costing around $430, 000. It’s great width prevents greater damage to small grain crops like soybeans that aren’t planted in rows. Equipped with 72 nozzles, each is powered by it’s own computer. The droplets sizes emitted from the sprayer are adjusted through pulsing pressure changes from the nozzles. Regulations are in place to keep the pressure, ‘on target’ to avoid spraying private property & gardens. With the Sprayer’s electrified network, any application of nitrogen is prone to mess up any one of the 72 computers onboard. Mr. WARRY said that due to the info.-input overload of having each computer sending it’s own date, Hoober’s is going to do an $18, 000 re-tool on a 12-row sprayer, using just seven computers for a batch of nozzles using a new company’s technology.
Next up, we saw the Planter. This machine was not one we go to drive, but we went through a run-down of its features too. It cost around $150, 000- $180, 000- one of the cheapest pieces of equipment we spoke on today. The seed is sucked into numerous individual planters by a vacuum. The Planter is able to change its seeding rate and use markers to mark the rows, via satellite imagery and overlaying maps. Seeds are planted using hydraulic downforce– how hard the see is placed into the ground. This machine can plant and fertilize seed. There is also a no-till setting with which the machine parts the organic matter in a V-shape before depositing a seed and packing the soil over top.
The talk concluded and, instead of unfolding our hands, the Sprayer was folded into a much more compact, easier-to-drive setting. During this transition, Prof. ISAACS reminded us of the $150mil cost of taking an idea to the construction phase- all the changes and improvements to each iteration of the equipment that had to be tested and approved before making it to market. One student asked what type of equipment might cut costs for the farmer. Mr. WARRY said it depends, but a $60-70, 000 piece of machinery could be combined with an $11, 000 planter, then stripped and fit with electronics and computers, an do an acceptable job when compared with a top-line model.
During my ride in the one of the machines- the older of two CASE tractors, I was able to have some of my questions answered too. I learned that Hoober’s does rent some equipment and there are places to go for that, but usually a farmer will invest in their own. I also learned that new farm equipment may also come with failsafes to prevent damage from improper use- for example, when the Sprayer was being folded, Prof. ISAACS mentioned that if the sections were folded out of sequence they could crumple the components or even come through the cab! Lastly, in response to what Mr. WARRY had mentioned about the technology component of precision agriculture being easier on older bodies, I asked about accessibility for farm equipment- a thought that came to me simply because I am shorter and climbing into the cabs, though not impossible, was a bit daunting. Mr. ISAACS told me such a program exists- it’s call AgrAbility. He told me that they make entering the cab much easier, but unlike other services that make custom vans from the ground up, there are no, ‘custom cabs’ because tractors cannot deviate from there factory default specs like that.