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Farm Equipment Enters The 'Sharing Economy'

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media
Machinery like this tractor can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy for a modern farm.

The time is ripe for the sharing economy in farm country.

Much like other Web-based companies like Airbnb or Uber, a site dedicated to leasing and using farm equipment is making available expensive machinery during the times producers need it most. And the idea is taking root as crop and livestock prices trend lower and costs climb higher.

“You get innovative when things get tighter,” said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University. “We're looking for ways to enhance income right now especially in a low margin environment.”

After land, equipment is typically the biggest expense for Midwestern crop farmers. When times are good, people buy new, bigger or fancier tractors and combines. In a down economy, new investments can be out of reach, but the need for the right equipment at the right time remains.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Boyd Brodie of Key Cooperative in Roland, Iowa,hopes exchanging equipment with other owners will help him better meet the needs of local farmers while recouping some of the co-ops investments.

  “We're buying very expensive equipment, you know $300,000 to $400,000 purchase price,” said Boyd Brodie, the operations lead at Key Cooperative in Roland, Iowa. “(With) our seasonal nature as a business, when we're growing crops, we can a lot of times only operate that equipment for weeks or maybe a month or more.”

What’s more, Brodie said, during that limited time Key Cooperative may have more interested users than it has equipment to lend.

Last fall, Brodie decided to list some of Key’s equipment on MachineryLink.com, a sharing website that hopes to connect idle equipment with farmers who need it. In addition to putting some of Key’s machines to work, Brodie said, it could help the coop bring in extra equipment during busy times.

“This sharing opportunity is one way that I think we can reduce our costs, be more efficient and actually try to get to a break-even or some level of profit,” Brodie said.

Modern farmers rely on big-ticket machinery exactly, and really only, when they need it. Neighbors probably need harvesters at the same time. But an online platform expands the pool of available equipment and can match up users farther afield. It’s kind of like a regional dating site.

Machinery Link’s Jeff Dema said the company has borrowed from various Silicon Valley success stories. It uses community rules and a rating system, for example, to hold people accountable.

Still, farmers have some unique concerns about sending half-million dollar pieces of equipment hundreds of miles away from home.

“They want to make sure their equipment is going to be taken care of,” Dema said. “And we know farmers really well, so we built a model and a platform that kind of accommodates those concerns.”

Machinery Link’s parent company operated a combine leasing business, which Dema said helped it learn the ins and outs of the business, like insurance, repairs and transportation. That the company is familiar with those concerns, Dema said, helps put farmers at ease.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Utilizing a sharing platform, a user like Key Cooperative could bring in extra equipment during a busy time like last fall.

  In a best-case scenario, Dema expects an owner could more than double the time a given piece of equipment gets used. A combine, for instance, could start harvesting in Texas in May and travel north with the season. The owners would earn rental income all the while, except when they’re using it themselves.

But there’s an additional reason this type of short-term rental system could be good for farmers.

“It is a great way to test something a little bit before you actually jump in and use it,” said Mark Hanna, an agricultural engineer at Iowa State University. He says that a new thing might be the latest piece of technology, but it could also be a different farming practice.

He offered strip tillage as an example. It’s an alternative to tilling an entire field that can help prevent erosion and nutrient run-off. But switching to it is not an easy proposition.

“You need a certain piece of equipment, maybe, to do that,” Hanna said, “but how does (strip tillage) interplay with my fertility, my pest management, that type of thing. So you can see this in practice before you make the big jump in terms of equipment investment.”

And a farmer may discover he can implement the new practice without ever having to make that investment, Hanna said, if he can simply match up with one someone else already bought and doesn’t need at the same time.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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