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Tapping into new markets

In an interview with the eilbote, Peer Leithold (Managing Director of Agricon GmbH) and Hermann Leithold (Head of Operations) comment on digitization criticism, the ph-value sensor and their company's growth plans.

The interview was originally published in the trade magazine eilbote (23/2019).


Eilbote: Mr. Peer Leithold, Mr. Hermann Leithold, your company's core business is the development and sale of tools for digital crop cultivation. At the conference on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the company two years ago, you predicted a strong boost in this area because this was the only way to overcome the current challenges. In the meantime, more and more critical voices are questioning the benefits of digitization. Does that annoy you?

Peer Leithold: Only if such statements, for example from the agricultural machinery manufacturer Michael Horsch or DLG President Hubertus Paetow, are interpreted as a total rejection of digitization. You have to listen carefully. Because a critical questioning is quite appropriate. In recent years, companies have sometimes been taken by surprise and then left alone with the new technology. It is often the case that there is a great development, for example a sensor, and then they look for whether there is not also an application for it in agriculture. That is the wrong order.

So, how should it be done?

Peer Leithold: You have to address the problem. Working methods that slow down efficiency in a certain area or complicate the farmer's work must be identified and improved through innovation. The solution is not necessarily digital, but it is mostly because digital technologies simply offer a huge toolbox.

Could you give us an example?

Peer Leithold: Sure, using liming as an example. This seemingly simple process is indispensable for plant cultivation in a humid climate zone like in Europe. Traditionally, however, this is often done with the large watering can. This leads to sometimes extreme differences in the pH value of the soil with all its negative consequences for nutrient uptake and plant growth. The correct sequence to solve this problem starts with the construction of a precisely adjustable application technique, which of course requires precise control for the site-specific application. We offer such a digital basic fertilisation on the basis of soil sampling and the resulting spread maps created in the agriPORT program. In contrast to our sensor-based solutions for N-fertilisation, the application of growth regulators or plant protection, in which the application rates are controlled in real time, the application rates for lime are based on the laboratory results of the mixed samples of usually three hectares of land. This grid is often sufficient. But in the case of heterogeneous soils, it could easily be more accurate.

Hermann Leithold: The next logical step is therefore a pH sensor, which enables more precise control of the spreader during lime application. However, there is still no technology for this, at least not one that meets our requirements for precision agriculture. In cooperation with one of Germany's leading research institutes, we have succeeded in developing the prototype of a pH sensor that delivers measurement results in laboratory quality. At the end of April, the company started a project to integrate the sensor into the automatic soil sampling devices. The aim is to automatically measure and store a pH value every time the instrument arm is inserted in two years' time. The resulting application maps for lime application will then be much smaller and the effects on soil fertility will be correspondingly more sustainable.


"In Germany 2000 farms, located predominantly in the east, are working with one or more Agricon processes." 


Peer Leithold founded Agricon GmbH in 1997 and is its sole managing partner. The 54-year-old studied agricultural science at the University of Halle-Wittenberg (degree: Dipl. Ing. agr.). He is a member of national and international precision farming networks.

When we started this interview, you demanded that digital crop production should remain practicable and understandable for farmers. How do you handle this as a supplier of products and services in the field of precision farming that require a lot of explanation?

Peer Leithold: Leithold: What drives us here is our performance promise. In other words, we promise our customers concrete additional revenue if the system is used properly, for example for N fertilisation. This is certainly a unique selling proposition. The certainty that we will be able to keep this promise comes from the large-scale trials we have conducted annually since 2001 to evaluate our processes. The most recent study on sensor-assisted fungicide application, which was carried out over three years with industrial partners in France, England and Germany, showed that this fungicide application technology generates stable additional revenue of EUR 45 per hectare.

Hermann Leithold: On the other hand, the promise of performance also results in our interest in enabling customers to exploit the possibilities offered by the system. In recent years, we have invested a lot of energy and time in this. We wanted to simplify the operation of devices as well as the cloud-based agriPORT for handling and interpreting the data. Knowledge transfer is important to us as well. This is why every new customer receives detailed introductory advice and intensive support in the first year. There are working groups for the decision-makers in the companies, driver training courses for the employees and the customer hotline for questions and problems. Although the expenditure is high, we will adhere to it in the future.

How many customers are you talking about in this context? Where is Agricon present these days?

Peer Leithold: Peer Leithold: In Germany there are around 2,000 farms with one or more Agricon processes, most of which are located in the east. Approximately half of them use our sensor technology on more than 50 percent of their farm area. We employ around
60 people at our headquarters in Jahna, Saxony, and in the field. In addition, our market is predominantly in Eastern Europe. These include the entire Baltic region as well as Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia. Sales and support are provided through the granting of licenses as franchise models. This means that our six partner companies operate independently, but have territorial protection and market the products and services for digital crop cultivation under the
Agricon brand with identical prices and quality standards. On the servers for the cloud-based data portal agriPORT, which is available in nine languages, we manage more than 140 million data records, for example on soil values, fertiliser application and yield, for a total of 1.7 million hectares, of which 1.2 million are in Germany, i.e. about ten percent of the local arable land, and so far a good 500,000 hectares in Eastern Europe, where growth is currently more dynamic.

Hermann Leithold: In Austria, where the approximately 50 Agricon users have so far been supported via our central distribution system, there has been an official franchise partner since 1 March 2019. We estimate that the potential of potential users of sensor-based crop cultivation methods in the Alpine republic is around 1,000 farms.

"The next step is a pH sensor that automatically determines the pH value with each time it penetrates the soil."

Hermann Leithold is Peer's eldest son and spent six years in all areas of Agricon GmbH. Two years ago he took over the management of the operative business. He studied Agricultural Science (Bachelor of Science) at the University of Hohenheim and Crop Science (Master of Science) at the University of Göttingen.

No digital process without consulting - that is our mantra. In the first year after purchasing an Agricon N fertilizer or plant protection system, our customers are intensively supported by a technical advisor.
After this introductory period, our service technicians and customer service staff are always available to provide advice and assistance if required.

Do you now want to 'go west' ?

Peer Leithold: Of course. We have decided to apply the successful principle "If you want to grow, you have to share" to the further development of the market, first in the western German states and then further in the direction of Western Europe.Yes. We have decided to apply the successful principle "If you want to grow, you have to share" to the further development of the market, first in the western German states and then further in the direction of Western Europe.

Hermann Leithold: We are looking for franchise partners who are familiar with the agricultural structure of their region. These can be agricultural consultants, agricultural machinery dealers and service providers, but also self-employed people and start-ups who see this as an opportunity. The offer would cover the entire product range presented on our website, including connection to agriPORT, support via the central customer helpline, service promises, guaranteeing our quality standards and, of course, regional protection.

Peer Leithold: However, it is important to us that the Agricon partners not only have a basic agricultural qualification and entrepreneurial skills, but that they are also adept at modern digital crop cultivation methods. After all, they have to accompany the farmers they support during the conversion of the entire management system.

What potential do you see between Westerland and Zugspitze?

Peer Leithold: In the western federal states we are by no means starting from scratch. There are already farms there that are successfully using our sensor-based cultivation methods. All in all, our offers would be suitable for 5,000 to 6,000 farms in part or in full. Our goal is to have one or more franchise partners in each federal state within two to three years. Then we will move on to Western Europe.


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