There are no short-cuts, no tricks to scouting fields and consulting. You've got to get your boots dirty and work up a sweat.

“There's nothing fancy or glamorous about field work,” says Johnny Wheetley. “The only way to know a crop and understand it is to get out in it. Any consultant worth his salt is working client fields as hard as or harder than he would his own. Farms have gotten so large that producers don't have as much time to walk their fields. They've got any number of fires to put out without having to scout. In essence, consultants are paid to pick up the slack.”

Consultants are also paid to impart information and recommendations. And while there may be no short-cuts in collecting field data, Wheetley and his wife, Fredese, have found a quicker way to get data and recommendations to their producer clients: a lap-top computer and e-mail account.

The Wheetleys work some 8,500 acres in Arkansas' north-central Poinsett County. “Most fields are around the Weiner-Waldenburg-Cherry Valley area. We have a little wheat and, later in the season, we'll have a few soybeans too. But we're pretty much solid rice,” says Johnny.

The area topsoil is very shallow and overall fertility is low. “It's rice ground — and that's what's planted. Producers here grow all the rice they can.”

As in other rice-growing areas of the state, water is a concern. Wheetley admits he's seen a steady drop in the water table here as well.

“I don't know if it's drying up as fast as was once claimed: in the mid-1980s we were told water would run out in 15 years. Well, it's been over 15 years, and we're still cooking. That doesn't mean there aren't problems, though. Wells go out regularly, and it'll happen again this year. When we start pumping, I'm sure we'll find a well or two that was good last year but is pumping sand now.”

The job

Wheetley worked Poinsett County as an Extension agent back in the mid-1980s. In 1988, he decided to take the consulting plunge after several farmers offered him a job to work their land. “That put a bug in my ear and I decided to give it a shot,” he says.

He learned a valuable lesson his first year out: cotton and rice acres don't mix well. “That first year, some of my rice farmers killed my cotton acres,” says Wheetley with a laugh. “It wasn't funny then, of course, but I learned quickly that it was impossible to work both crops. Being in the middle of drift fights is no fun at all. When you've got two paying clients and one of them killed the other's crop, you'll lose no matter what. Anyway, after that first year I knew I had to choose a crop.”

In Poinsett County, as in others, Crowley's Ridge tends to be the dividing line. East of the ridge is cotton, west is rice and soybeans. Wheetley decided to stay on the west side.

Wheetley is working about half the acres he used to. “My younger cousin worked with me for about nine years. Four years ago, he took another job, and I had to cut back on the acres I work.”

After his cousin left, “(Johnny) had to find a better way,” says Fredese. “He struggled for a couple of years, trying to refine a working system and has finally come up with something that works. You know, we were kind of forced into this, and it's turned out that necessity really pushed us into something better.”

Until Fredese (who has a computer and technology degree) began helping him, Johnny would scout fields and hand-write notes for each. That was time-consuming and inefficient.

“I'm telling you, one of the main problems I used to face was getting information to farmers in an easy-to-use format,” says Johnny. “You wouldn't think that would be such a big deal, but farmers are hard to catch. I used to carry three phones and a beeper and still couldn't get through to clients. Phones have gotten better, but they aren't the whole answer.”

Once Fredese began working alongside him this season, things became easier. While walking through fields, he'll use a microcassette recorder to dictate notes. When he's through with that field, he brings the tape to Fredese, pops another in the recorder and walks to another field.

“I take the tape he's just given me,” says Fredese, “transcribe his comments into the laptop and print it off. We print a hard copy for the farmer and one for us. Then, I e-mail a copy to the farmer from the truck. Within half an hour of checking, the farmer can see an e-mail describing conditions in his field. This makes it a lot easier for everyone. Johnny doesn't have to worry about writing notes and I can take care of the computer-related side of the business.”

With the exception of talking into a recorder instead of taking notes, Johnny does the same thing he's always done out in the field. “You know, ‘The rice is at so many leaves, the weeds are this type and this heavy, and all the rest. This is my recommendation.’ But it gets to the farmer so much faster. We've gotten great feedback on this. The farmers seem to really like it.”

Most farmers are now hooked up to the Internet. It was slow going for the first few weeks, “but everyone is figuring out this is a technology that can streamline business,” says Johnny. “Some farmers have told me they like the constant updates. You know, this doesn't do away with the phone conversations and face-to-face discussions — we still need that. But what we're doing really enhances communication between us. It's invaluable when a farmer can look over my e-mailed notes while we're on the phone talking about a specific field.”

Working together

“We have fun and keep a sense of humor,” says Fredese. “We've found that we're a team, and it has worked out really well. While in the field, you have to bear down and leave the family stuff behind. It's a business, so it's very important to understand that from the outset.

“Throughout the day, there are lots of things to laugh and talk about. It's wonderful to spend time with him. It's just so rewarding to work together and do a good job.”

Johnny is more succinct, but no less enthusiastic: “We both have our niches and shore up each other's weaknesses. She's really a great partner.”

While Johnny walks fields, Fredese works the computer in the truck. “I'm an avid researcher. I try and find ways to help (Johnny) do his job better. One of the first things I did was to find the best weather sites available and save them to the desktop. That way, he can check four or five radars to see what forecasts are.”

In the past, if a storm was brewing on the horizon, Johnny would run to the nearest co-op to check the radar. Now, he says, “We just pop the (Web site) radars up and, in two minutes, can determine if a field is being rained on and how long that rain should last. That has saved untold time, and we've only been doing this for a couple of months.”

Another thing the two make constant use of is Web sites containing data on chemical labels. “That saves all kinds of time, too. I used to use a big book, flipping around trying to find stuff.”

The Wheetleys are now eyeing digital cameras. “That's something we'll be going to soon,” says Johnny. “Hopefully, I can just take photos and send them straight to the farmers. ‘You've got weevils — look at this picture!’”

Regardless, Johnny says his wife has been invaluable to him this season. “It takes both of us to do this and I don't take her for granted. I've got 17 years' worth of notebooks at home. I've got bundles and bundles of them. Now, because of her, it's all on a little plastic disk. Believe me, that's a welcome change.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com