MANSON - Brent and LuAnn Johnson, of rural Manson, consider themselves fortunate.
"I don't know how we got so lucky getting the people we do," said Brent Johnson, whose company, Labre Crop Consulting, was named the latest winner of the Iowa Farm Bureau Renew Rural Iowa Entrepreneur award.
"They like to think out-of-the-box," Johnson said, "and keep customers' best interests in mind."
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Tristan Novak, of Manson, solders a component onto a circuit board that he created. A two-year employee at Labre Crop Consulting, in Manson, Novak customizes electronic precision ag equipment and writes the software to meet a customer’s farming needs.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Brent and LuAnn Johnson look over a client’s field data. Behind them are pins in a map representing more than 500,000 acres covering the bulk of north Iowa that Labre Crop Consulting has helped manage in the business’ eight years.
The Johnsons started farming on their own in 2000 and as they sought more efficiency in their operation, they needed more expertise from others.
Brent Johnson said he started soil testing on a grid pattern. Interested neighbors hired the Johnsons to do their soil testing and by 2006, Labre Crop Consulting was open for business.
In eight years, the business grew to include eight full-and part-time employees, plus a bevy of seasonal workers and interns through the year.
The secret to their success?
"Our approach is unique," Brent Johnson said. "Anything we do gets a fresh look.
"We remember what works, but we look to see if there are better ways."
In addition, he said the company is not a dealer for seeds or crop input products.
He said some customers don't want their fertilizer company performing soil tests and recommending what their fields need.
"We have that separation," Johnson said. "We've been approached by companies to push their products. But it's important to our business structure to not do that."
Labre staff consults with farmer clients' field needs and makes recommendations, "but they purchase their inputs wherever they want to," Johnson said.
The Johnsons continue to farm full-time as well as manage the consultant business.
"I want customers to know," Johnson said, "that they'll be treated the way I want to be treated.
"Their information is important to their operation."
That includes, he said, driving to the client to perform the soil test and driving back at least a second time to hand-deliver the results and be available to answer questions about the study or recommendations.
"Many (Iowa) farmers don't really understand soil fertility," Johnson said. "And it's because of our geography.
"It relatively easy to grow crops here. But I have friends farther west that know so much more about fertility.
"They're busting their butts to get 80-bushels-per-acre corn. They'll tell me things I didn't know."
What Labre does represent is electronic field monitoring systems from a wide array of manufacturers.
The Johnsons' secret weapon is Tristan Novak, of Manson, who specializes in getting existing systems to talk to otherwise incompatible manufacturers' devices and software platforms.
Novak said whatever a customer needs, he'll find a way to put a system together, whether it's a hardware addition or write interfacing software.
He grew up on a Calhoun County farm. While working in family's fields, he toyed with making his own monitor system interconnects.
"It was sort of a hobby," he said.
This led him to the Johnsons, so Novak designs circuit boards, mounting brackets and software to fill a need.
"I like to take a current product," Novak said, "and make it better."
Labre uses GPS technology and drone-gathered imaging to make highly detailed, custom recommendations for farmers.
The fast-moving drone technology market has helped Labre take its assessments to a whole new level.
"For example," Johnson said, "now you can capture very exacting pictures from these drones and each pixel within that picture now has information tied to that pixel; our pixel sizes are basically1-inch ground resolutions, so we can even identify individual plants.
"We measure slopes, watersheds and emergent patterns in corn fields. We can identify tile lines, too, because that technology helps us capture slope and the watershed movement on the land."
Pam Anderson, Calhoun County Economic Development executive director, said this kind of success is a benefit to the entire area.
"We don't have a lot of industries here in Calhoun County," she said, "so small businesses make up a lot of our economy.
"As for labor, keeping our young people local is important because we want them to stay around and work and raise their families here. "Labre is helping us do that."