Published on 01/05/06

Student group awarded big consulting 'contract'

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Yarbrough Consulting beat four other precision agriculture consulting firms to win a $100,000 contract from Pike Creek Turf, a major Southeastern turfgrass farm. Too bad they'll never get to spend the money.

Yarbrough and its competitors are all companies formed by students taking the "Principles of Precision Agriculture" class taught only on the University of Georgia Tifton campus.

Fake firms, real grass

Southern Dawg Ag Consulting, Getting Mean in the Green, Big Dawg Consulting, BAJK Consulting and Yarbrough Consulting aren't real companies. But Pike Creek Turf is very much a real and successful firm.

The Cook County family operation, in south-central Georgia, is owned by the brother-sister team of Jaimie Allen and Kim Allen Boling. They manage 3,000 acres of 11 turfgrass varieties used mostly for golf courses. They employ 200 people.

"They're definitely one of the top turfgrass producers around," said George Vellidis, a professor and engineer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He teaches the class.

Precision farming

The class introduces students to precision agriculture, which helps farmers put things like water and fertilizers exactly where they need to be in exact amounts. That saves them money. It's generally better for the environment, too.

The students learn how Geographical Information Systems, a technology used to analyze data from a geographic perspective, and Global Positioning Systems, which uses satellites to locate pinpoints on Earth, can be used to auto-steer tractors or turfgrass mowers.

They learn about remote sensing, too, using methods like satellite images to run variable-rate irrigation, which places water exactly as plants need it.

For the final project, students were given the scenario that the Allens are interested in using precision agriculture on their farm and have decided to hire a consulting firm to make a plan for them.

"I got a lot more out of this project than if I'd just read books," said Gerome Morgan, a junior agriculture education major. He was on the Yarbrough team.

"We were out there using the equipment," he said, "and then really figuring out what would be best used and how for the Allens' particular needs. Made it more interesting."

"It puts the students in a real-life scenario," Vellidis said, "and makes them apply what they have learned in the class."

The presentation

Each team was required to submit a written, formal proposal to the Allens and Vellidis and give a 20-minute presentation.

"The plans needed to be detailed enough for the Allens to really implement on their farm if they wanted," Vellidis said.

The students toured the Pike Creek Turf to prepare for the project. Just as it is in the real world, a slight information edge can be the difference between a big deal and the one that got away.

During the farm visit, Yarbrough members noticed trucks hauling timber from the farm. After a few questions, they learned that the Allens also manage large tracts of timber land. Though the final project leaned toward turfgrass, the Yarbrough team included ways to improve timber lands, too, in their precision agriculture plan.

That was the deciding factor.

"All the teams made strong points," Allen said. "We got some good ideas about some things we could implement in our operation."

This is the third year the class has been offered. Twenty-one students took the class this year. Students in previous classes made plans for a large vegetable farm and a grass-fed beef operation.

The students probably won't go on to work for a real precision ag consulting group, Vellidis said. But they'll be entering the work force soon. Conducting research and organizing an effective presentation are both important skills in professional jobs.

Yarbrough members weren't sure how they would divide the big, fake, $100,000 check.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.