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Thanks for thankless job

By Staff | Dec 4, 2015

ABOVE: Speading fertilizer and running a sprayer means an applicator has to pay attention at all times. Tom Kestel shows some of the monitors he has to watch as he does his job at Ag Partners in Alta.

ALTA – Tom Kestel, custom applicator at Ag Partners, in Alta, was named as one of four national finalists for AGCO’s 2015 Operator of the Year award on Nov. 17.

This is the 10th year for the competition, which recognizes the best custom applicators in North America.

Kestel has been with Ag Partners’ for 14 years.

He applies about 35,000 acres per year, putting in many long days, late nights and weekend hours during the busy season.

“Sometimes he gets his butt chewed just for showing up (to work on a field),” said Brian Nepple, location leader at Ag Partners, who also nominated Kestel. “When it’s really busy, farmers wanted him out there two hours ago, and it’s not his fault – he gets there when he can get there.”

RIGHT: Tom Kestel climbs the machine he has run so much in his time as a fertilizer applicator. He is one of four national finalists for the title of “Applicator of the Year,” sponsored by AGCO.

Kestel, a quiet and mild-mannered man, laughed quietly and said he takes it well.

“I was a farmer for 20 years,” he said, “and I treat everyone’s fields like they were my own.

“I would want someone to do it correctly and do the best they can do.”

Kestel said the days are long, challenging and time-consuming, especially when everyone needs his services all at the same time.

“Farmers are getting bigger and have larger equipment, and they can cover a lot more ground at a time,” Kestel said. “It puts more pressure on us to get things done” in a timely manner.

Tom Kestel

He said he can do 500 to 600 acres in a day, and has even had a handful of 1,000-acre days, but he said things have to really click to make that happen.

Kestel said technology has changed his job considerably.

“I used to fill the foam tanks in the morning and follow that path in the field to see where I’ve been, then it went to following a light bar, and now we have auto steer,” he said.

Kestel keeps up with this technology by talking to other people and attending classes.

“I’m always learning something new,” he said. “GPS has helped a lot.

“I have a map of the field and can see where I’ve been. Most machines shut themselves off when they need to be off, too. That helps a lot with accuracy.”

He said his biggest learning curve over the years was attaining accuracy.

“I did my own spraying for 20 years when I farmed, so I knew how to do that, but I had no experience spreading fertilizer,” he said. “I had to learn to drive those big machines, and it seemed like we had a new machine ever five years or so.”

He said it’s important that he knows and understands new spray products that come out each year, and new characteristics of corn and soybeans that he sprays. Mistakes, according to Kestel, can be costly to both the farmer and the company.

Kestel is the firm’s applicator shop mechanic, troubleshooting and performing maintenance on equipment there when he’s not out in the fields.

When they are filling train cars with grain, Kestel also drives the locomotive.

Kestel was nominated by Nepple, who speaks highly of Kestel’s work and dedication.

“In my opinion, he has a thankless job,” Nepple said. “What better way to reward a guy than to do it in front of his peers?”

Nepple said Kestel’s dedication has dictated Kestel’s eating many bologna sandwiches and tolerating late nights, all in the name of getting over the acres when they need attention.

“This is a unique opportunity to recognize him, because we could never pay him what he’s worth,” said Nepple.

Kestel sat back in his chair and shrugged his shoulders, giving the impression that he didn’t know what the big deal was.

“I’m honored that he thinks that much of me,” he said. “I thought (Nepple) was full of it when he told me I was a finalist.

“I’d heard about the competition, but never thought I would be a national finalist.”

The competition garnered between 70 and 100 applicants, and the elimination process produced four national finalists.

Finalists are chosen based on skills, dedication, customer service and community involvement.

The other national finalists include Curtis Fick, of South Dakota Wheat Growers in Carpenter, South Dakota; Brian Manolovits, of Wilbur Ellis, in Mott, North Dakota, and Dennis Rigney, of Crop Production Services of Rochester, Indiana.

“The AGCO Operator of the Year award recognizes top professional applicators whose work often goes overlooked, but is essential to farmers and ensures they achieve the best yield possible,” said Conor Bergin, tactical marketing manager of AGCO Application Equipment. “This is the 10th year of the program, and the ag retailers provide us with nominations of professionals who are not only hard working and excellent at what they do, but also consistently go above and beyond expectations and are involved in their communities.”

The winner will be named at the 2015 AGCO Agricultural Retailers Association Conference and Expo in Palm Desert, California in early December.

The winner will receive a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The retailer who nominated the winner will receive 100 hours of free use of their choice of an AGCO Terra-Gator self-propelled high-flotation applicator or RoGator self-propelled sprayer.

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