Fiber helps Ag Connections software company grow
By Patrick Smith
Two renovated tobacco barns with nary a sign out front is not where you would normally look for a thriving tech company.
But for 17 years, Ag Connections has been making a name for itself in the farming world from its headquarters 12 miles southwest of Murray.
The software company, which is settled in two nondescript buildings, keeps 36 people bustling with responsibilities that help this technology firm continue to grow, despite its unlikely location.
“This business would not be here without the fiber connection from WK&T,” says Rick Murdock, co-owner of Ag Connections. “Our employees drive 10 miles from home to get to work. The biggest traffic problem they have to worry about is deer along their drive. But right here in Calloway County, we’re working on some cutting-edge stuff.”
Silicon Valley, not Calloway County, has long been the central hub for technology jobs. From the birth of Apple Computer, the height of the dot-com era and today’s fast-paced mobile application development, California has been home to the some of the largest technology firms in the world. But a high-speed fiber Internet connection from providers like WK&T is changing the landscape of where technical jobs can be located.
“These technical jobs can be done from anywhere now,” says Murdock.
That’s fundamental to Ag Connections’ growth. It allows the software company to hire highly skilled employees for technical work right in their hometown. “Our employees grew up here,” he adds. “This is home, and this is where they go to church. They want to be here, and it makes us a stronger company.”
Humble beginnings, extraordinary product
Murdock first met his future business partner and Ag Connections co-owner, Pete Clark, while they both worked in agriculture retail stores. Eventually both Murdock and Clark saw the need for a record-keeping software program that’s specifically tailored to agriculture needs. In 1998, they quit their jobs, mortgaged their homes, hired a software developer and started Ag Connections.
With years of farming and sales experience, both Murdock and Clark found themselves well-suited to market their product to farmers. The Ag Connections software, which growers pay a yearly license fee to use, provides farmers with production record keeping, cost analysis, regulatory compliance records and data sharing within their system. The computer program, which can be accessed on Web browsers and mobile devices, gives farmers the ability to truly know their costs, keep track of their inventory and minimize mistakes.
“Farmers can make the decision whether or not to harvest a crop,” says Clark. “Because of those detailed records from our software, they know that their yields may not be high enough and it may be more cost-effective to leave it in the ground. Otherwise they’d lose money.”
Over time, Ag Connections has grown its customer base by listening to farmers and understanding agriculture. Murdock and Clark started by spending more than 180 days a year on the road, growing the business. Today, they serve more than 3,000 farming operations nationally and internationally, with the software keeping track of more than 11 million acres of farmland.
“We give growers the tools to click on any field they’ve got and see all of the crop history,” says Murdock. “They can see what each item costs and what it costs per acre. They know the day it was planted, the total units used and total units harvested. And finally, they know the average costs per acre, the total gross dollars and operating profit. It’s crucial information for growers to be successful.”
While most might expect to have to move to a larger city for software programming jobs, Ag Connections provides an opportunity for developers to find high-paying jobs near home.
“We get the best employees because they’re the ones that want to live here,” says Murdock. “We’ve never had any difficulty finding qualified workers.”
And unlike larger operations, Ag Connections provides its employees the freedom to work on projects in their own unique style. While some operations may have guidelines that must be followed, Ag Connections isn’t locked into a set formula.
“Some of the things we do they haven’t written the books on yet,” says software developer Mack Harris. “A lot of times these guys know what they want to do, but the technology might not be there yet. They let us spend the time to solve the problem right.”
The developers also listen to the customers. If a farmer finds a problem in the system, programmers can make the change almost immediately. “Agriculture is just now starting to see how data collection and computers are helping farmers out, and it really feels like we’re shaping the direction of farming right now,” says software developer Kody Myers. “There’s a lot of pride in that, and it really feels like, even here in a little tobacco barn, we’re making a change — it’s indirect, but over time we talk to a grower and we see the effect that our work is having on farming.”
The power of partnerships
Murdock is quick to point out that Ag Connections’ success couldn’t have happened without community support. Ag Connections depends on Murray State University for qualified developers and employees. He also counts the help of The Murray Bank and WK&T as vital allies to his company’s success.
Ag Connections’ Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system, provided by WK&T, allows them to transfer calls to sales representatives and employees regardless of whether they’re in the office or out in the field. “It’s given us great flexibility,” says Murdock. “It’s essentially created a virtual office, and calls can be forwarded straight to a cell phone.”
The VoIP combined with fiber has also given Ag Connections the flexibility to provide better customer support and training. Rather than travel to a grower’s to help them with their system, with a fiber connection, support specialists are now able to essentially take over a growers computer and walk them through the issue.
But these partnerships are bigger than just customer support. Partnerships like the one between Ag Connections and WK&T have given people the opportunity to find great jobs locally — jobs that could have easily moved to Paducah or Nashville, but Ag Connections’ success is helping the community prosper.
“Without the bandwidth from WK&T, we would have had to move off that country road a long time ago,” says Murdock.