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Master Farmer Denny Bell’s strategy: Listen, learn, adapt

Slideshow: Denny and Lynda Bell farm on the outskirts of Terre Haute. During his retail ventures, Bell was doing more than just selling farmers a product.

Denny Bell graduated from Purdue University in 1979 in ag economics. He returned home to farm. He’s still a farmer today, being named a 2017 Master Farmer, but he couldn’t have predicted the path he would follow to operating TerreMax Farms LLC near Terre Haute today.

The farm recession of the 1980s took its toll on Bell’s dreams. Due to financial conditions and other factors, he was forced to exit farming in the mid-’80s. “Looking back, it wasn’t that I was a bad farmer,” he relates. “It was just the economic conditions we found ourselves in then.”

Always listening and learning, and never daunted, Bell saw an opportunity to develop and sell computer software for the ag software market, then in its infancy. He gathered together people who understood computers and formed Agri-Logic, marketing some of the first accounting software products for farmers.

As the business evolved, Bell attended trade shows and soon found he could learn from farmers who came in to talk, whether they purchased software or not.

“Once yield monitors came out, we developed Case IH and Ag Leader’s first yield-mapping software. We also had our own version called Instant Yield Maps. I began asking farmers what they were learning,” he recalls. “I was expecting some profound answers. Instead, about 99% of the time farmers told me yield monitors convinced them how important tile drainage was to yield. It was obvious that poorly drained soils were the biggest limiting factor to yields for most people.”

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Bell sold Agri-Logic to Fluid Power in the mid-1990s, which later sold it to Case IH. Before long, he was back in farming. But he remembered the lesson learned from farmers in trade show booths.

“We had plenty of wet soils, so we began thinking about installing tile,” he says. “The problem was there wasn’t a good option that a farmer could use to install tile on his own. If there was, he could reduce costs.”

Bell soon found himself at the Sunbelt Ag Expo, working an agreement with someone who exhibited a simple tile plow so he could build and sell plows.

“The original one we built didn’t go deep enough, so we came up with different models that would go deeper,” he says. Before long, Bell was in business for himself, building and marketing soil plows through Soil-Max, a company he founded, while still farming. He introduced Gold Digger tile plows, which established his place in the market.

Bell and his cousin, Jim Yegerlehner, developed Intellislope, a GPS-based device to help farmers install tile at the correct grade. Bell and Yegerlehner also owned a separate company called Gradient.

Soon Ag Leader was interested in their products, and purchased the companies in 2012. Ag Leader’s Soil-Max is still a leading supplier of tile plows.

Bell exhibited his tile plows at many farm shows while he still owned the business. “You could tell pretty soon if a farmer was really interested in a plow or not,” he says. “Even if he wasn’t, I enjoyed talking to him.

“I began asking lots of questions about nitrogen programs. I felt we needed to upgrade our own N program, and I’ve used a lot of ideas I collected from farmers during those years to put our program together.” He’s still fine-tuning his N practices.

Ironically, despite being known for drainage innovation, Bell has 200 acres of sandy land that needs irrigation. He installed drip-irrigation to reach corners and offsets where pivots can’t reach.

Always thinking, always learning and always trying new things — that’s what makes Denny Bell tick.

Up close with Denny Bell

Age: 59
Location: Terre Haute, Vigo County
Wife: Lynda (met working at side-by-side trade show booths for different companies)
Education: Purdue University, degree in ag economics
Crops: corn and soybeans, usually 50-50 rotation
Livestock: none
Employees: Bryan Cuiksa, Keaton Booth
Tillage methods and more: no-tills soybeans and strip tills corn; uses cover crops extensively to help reduce soil erosion and improve soil health; purchases and applies turkey litter
Children: Merit and Brenna, both 21 and both entering senior year at Purdue
Leadership roles: 2005-15 supervisor, Vigo County Soil and Water Conservation District; speaker, Snyder Memorial Lecture events for Purdue ag economics; featured entrepreneur, Purdue College of Agriculture entrepreneurship event; Purdue Ag Economics Entrepreneur of the Year award; Kid’s Hope mentor at Terre Town Elementary School since 2010, working primarily with socially disadvantaged children
Notable: started several businesses from scratch, including Agri-Logic and Soil-Max, and sold them

Check out the slideshow below to learn more about Denny Bell's operation.

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