Henk van Riessen

Delta Precision Technologies, LLC

By Susan Montgomery

Henk van Riessen’s one of those lucky people who grew up understanding what his vocational field would be.

“At age 12, I already knew I would go to agriculture school ,” said van Riessen. And he did.

That let him in 1993 he to Auburn University in Alabama, an ocean away from his native Holland. He enrolled at Auburn to fill study-abroad requirements for a post-graduate program in Holland. He had planned to return  but instead stayed at Auburn to get his Ph.D.

“Things change, and things can change in agriculture,” said van Riessen. “You just need to go with the flow and seize the opportunities that are given to you.”

Those changes and opportunities brought van Riessen and his wife, Barbara, from Alabama to the Mississippi Delta in 2003. They settled just outside of Cleveland, and he worked as a manager and precision agriculture scientist for the agricultural-technological solutions company, InTime. He then spent a year and a half as precision ag director at Wade, Inc., and late last year, launched his own business, Delta Precision Technologies, LLC.

The firm helps any business with its computer equipment, software and data management, but it particularly serves agribusinesses and farmers.

Here in the flatlands, growers are starting to accumulate mountains of data about their farming operations, van Riessen said. The ability to collect and use this information comes from the new equipment they are now putting into the fields.

“Tractors, combines, sprayers—pretty much any modern machine in ag nowadays can provide that data,” he said. A tractor might issue data on its engine, attached equipment, fuel levels and the weather. GPS comes into play. The tractor guides itself around the field. The driver doesn’t steer it, instead he monitors its progress—as would an airplane pilot flying with instruments.

In the case of a fertilizer applicaton, for example, the rates of application might change with specific variations in feedback from conditions in the field.

And instructions and responses to the tractor might be be issued from a computer in an office or from a cell phone.

“It is important here in the South where—it’s now true in the whole United States—we have drivers who are not owner drivers. We need to be able to control what is happening with that particular treatment. Ag needs to be more efficient to be able to stay profitable,” van Riessen said.

His job is to help the grower be more efficient, and that means customization. “The grower needs so much help as to what will be profitable in his situation,” he explained.

Van Riessen continued, “All of that data that is coming at you needs to flow so it will benfit the farm.”

“With my ag background, I can help the grower make decisions that will help the grower move forward into this new era of data,” he said.

Every farm operation is different, and some are larger than others. A larger farm owned by a corporation might have more money for technological advances. “It’s more delicate to move a 2,000-acre farm into the digital world than a 30,000-acre farm,” van Riessen observed. But they all tend to need help with the transition.

“Nowadays, there is an app for everything. The grower can manage the farm from the smart phone. But he is no expert at setting that up, and he needs the help to set that up,” he said. “The age we are living in now is so different from what we were used to 20 years ago.”

One of the changes is the amount of precision required in activities such as setting up a tractor with a planter. With the new equipment, the planter must be centered behind the tractor with its boxes set exactly for what is needed, precisely 30 inches apart—or 38 inches, depending. “Every planter I have ever seen had to be adjusted,” he said.

He tries to aid growers in identifying the “economic optimum where precision agriculture is going to pay off or where it is going to cost something.”

“Technology is changing how we farm,” he continued. Remote sensing, which he has taught at Delta State University, provides a detailed overview image of a field from planting through harvest. The images are collected by aircraft and drone flyovers, or via satellites. Satellite imagery, he said, is cheaper and faster.

The data informs the grower at the time and later, when he wants to make decisions about a new growing season. But there is so much informatiion.

A combine going through a field will issue GPS information about yields every second. “If it takes two and a half hours to harvest a field, you can figure out how many data points you are going to have,” he said.

Or, “the grower has 150 fields and does five or six applications throughout the year. That is going to be a lot of data. That data needs to be managed,” he explained. “You are going to have a lot of data that can be managed in a way so we can access it later.”

When van Riessen was at Auburn, a long time farmer asked for an explanation of precision agriculture. Van Riessen said the grower remarked, “Gosh, I have been doing this all my life.”

The man would ride along beside a driver on a combine, sitting with a map on paper. He would mark the location of the biggest harvest in the field.

If a grower knows which part of a field produces the largest harvest, he can apply more fertilizer at that spot.

Now, a similar objective remains but the tools and methods have changed. “If a recipe can be generated for the grower, it should help him make money, “ van Riessen said.

“He now has a much better feel for what the fields are doing and what he needs to do next.”

Van Riessen said there are few similarities between farming in Holland and in the Delta. Wheat is grown in both places, but in Holland it springs from land derived from “the bottom of the ocean” rather than “the bottom of a swamp.”

His parents had “a hobby farm” and he milked cows as a teen-ager and worked on potato farms. His father raised warmblood horses, which are well suited for dressage, the classic equestrian art sometimes described as dancing with horses.

The movements of both the rider and horse are exact.

Van Riessen occasionally has taught riding and dressage since he has lived in Cleveland, but he doesn’t ride much these days. He and his wife, who trains and boards dogs, have a couple of horses on the place, and he is teaching their daughter, Cassie, 8, to ride. They also have a son, Willem, 3, who will have the advantage of his father’s expertise in horsemanship.

Van Riessen’s suited for the pastoral setting. It’s akin to a house on a homeplace. He reflected on the needs of farmers. “I do the computer hardware, the technology part, anything they need for that, yes.” But his work occupies a niche “that as far as I know has not been addressed in the agriculture community. The growers don’t know how much is out there.”

They do know of course, that they want “to get what they need, no more and no less.” And that is precisely what van Riessen tries to offer.