Volunteer Ag: Innovation and Sustainability Backed by ROI

Written by Rachel Sim

Johnny Verell, who runs his family’s 8,500 acre operation near Jackson, Tennessee, knows that for growers, sustainability and innovation must be backed by ROI. At Volunteer Ag, Johnny and agronomist Brian Adams provide research-backed recommendations to their clients and have built a strong reputation in the region. After three years of evaluation, SOURCE is quickly becoming a staple among their growers.

Johnny is the third generation to run the operation his grandfather started in the 1960s. Situated deep in cotton country, it represented 80% of the farm’s crop until the 2000s; today, they mostly grow corn, wheat, and soy.

After we moved away from cotton, we started trying to figure out how much nitrogen it actually takes per bushel to achieve our yield goal,” he says. It was through his work with Volunteer Ag Services that Johnny and Vol Ag’s lead agronomist, Brian Adams, were introduced to SOURCE.

One thing we pride ourselves on at Vol Ag is staying ahead of the curve and up to date on new technology,” says Brian. But we don’t want to do anything to damage our reputation, so when we make recommendations, we need to make sure they’re agronomically sound practices or products and that they’re going to provide good ROI for our growers.” 

Johnny and Brian started trialing SOURCE three years ago, and both were impressed. 

We got a great result that first year, so last year we moved to a larger scale to see how it looked replicated across a field compared to strip tests,” Johnny adds. Well, last year was the biggest drought we’ve seen on our farm in probably 30 years.” 

Even so, Johnny says they still achieved the results they needed, and the difference was apparent: You could visually see the strips of the field that had been treated. When you were harvesting, you could tell which areas SOURCE was on.” 

After that, Brian says they felt confident talking to their growers about SOURCE

We don’t want our growers to make any unneeded applications of anything that’s going to cost them more than the norm unless we have some good data to back up that ROI and to prove it,” he explains. Based on what we saw in the field, we knew we could tell our growers about this product.” 

Vol Ag takes its recommendations seriously; understanding the strengths and limitations of a product or practice are key parts of the testing process. Today, Brian says they understand how SOURCE can benefit their growers and where to place it to maximize value. 

Probably 70% of all growers we do business with are using SOURCE at some level,” says Brian. They’re using SOURCE on corn, cotton, soybeans and everything in between.”

And the growers are happy with the results.

If growers call on their own to volunteer good results for a product, that speaks volumes,” he says. That’s what it’s been like this year with SOURCE; they’re impressed with what they’re seeing, and they’ve shared a lot with us this year.” 

Brian says when agronomists get phone calls, usually it’s from growers who want to share what didn’t work on their operation; it’s rare that they say what did work.

Both Johnny and Brian are excited about SOURCE’s ability to increase phosphorus availability, too. In West Tennessee, Brian says there’s nearly 200 years worth of phosphorus locked in the soil and inaccessible to crops. 

I don’t like not making use of what we put out in the field; I want to make the most use of those inputs that we can, instead of spending a lot of money on phosphorus that we’re not getting this year,” he says. With SOURCE, you can make more efficient use of the phosphorus already in the soil, and take up some of what you’ve been paying to put out there year after year.” 

This year, Johnny reduced his phosphorus application and found he had a higher yield and ROI in SOURCE-treated areas.

At first, we thought SOURCE was just going to be a nitrogen product, but now it looks like it’s going to be other nutrients, too,” he says. We’re seeing seeing how much of our inputs we can reduce without giving up any yield, and actually increasing our yields because of how SOURCE works with the plant.”

The relationship that Sound fosters with its growers and dealers is another huge part of the draw. Johnny knows firsthand how wary growers can be of new products, and with good reason.

People are always wanting farmers to try new products, but the challenge for farmers is figuring out if the product works or is just another snake oil,” he says. When you see people really believe in a product and they want you to try it enough to come spend time with you, that tells you they’re serious. Being able to partner with companies like Sound Agriculture, where you have a guarantee that backs the product is a big deal.”

When it comes to Vol Ag’s recommendations, however, data is king; all testing must be replicated to make sure the results bear out.

A lot of products you get may not ever make it to year two or three,” says Johnny. But with SOURCE, it’s become a standard practice on our operation, and based on what we’re seeing here in West Tennessee, I think it will be a standard farm practice on many farms here very soon.”