Agri Leader

Growing hi-tech needs

—Talk to people about farming or growing citrus and they usually picture a guy in a hat riding a tractor, not high tech gadgets and cutting-edge telemetry technologies.

But those two worlds have come together in the past couple of decades, and David Summers has been busy making the introductions.

Summers works for GeoAg Solutions, a d.b.a. of Crop Production Services, with its only office in Lake Placid. This little titanium arm of a huge chemical company is focused on the high tech aspect of growing crops that is quickly becoming more popular with the agriculture community.

Like much of the high-tech industry, this world can be confusing. Summers summed it up this way: “We provide custom technology solutions. We develop programs and apps and services to help our customers streamline their operations and remain in compliance with many of the increasing regulatory requirements they face.”

Summers’ office offers three main components of technology-based ag services, including electronic timekeeping system for labor, weather and moisture monitoring stations and OSHA safety consulting and training.

The electronic labor systems include hand scanners that can record an employee’s ID badge as well as how many buckets of oranges he picked, for example.

The information can be wirelessly uploaded from the field, significantly streamlining the payroll process.

Not only does this save time, but it helps growers, who are under a lot of pressure to prove fair labor practices, to track and document their labor policies.

“Workers are paid by piece rate, but the employee has to make minimum wage. This system helps our customers to monitor that and make sure their employees are being paid fairly and meeting all the legal requirements,” Summers added.

The system, called HarvestPay, has morphed over time from a GPS in a box with a USB key to a Nextel-linked system to a hand scanner and tablet with a wireless printer. The old technologies are on display in a mini museum in the GeoAg offices. Summers works with programmers to build solutions like these.

In fact, GeoAg built their own “tablets” back in the early 2000s before the consumer tablets that are so popular now were even invented.

With the advent of smartphones, Summers said that growers now have the best technology at their fingertips. And he should know. This “techie” has a smartphone, two laptops, an ipad and an android tablet. He’s got a remote starter on his truck, too.

But he’s got his other foot in the low-tech world of soil, water and trees.

Summers was born and raised in Highlands County and grew up working his grandfather’s groves.

His grandfather used to pile up newspapers on the seat of his Jeep so that Summers could reach the pedals, and he taught him how to drive in the sandy ridge groves.

As a teen, Summers worked for Smoak Groves. “It was a great experience working in the groves, and during those years they allowed me to do just about every job there was in the field,” Summers recalled.

After graduation, Summers went on to earn a degree in citrus business from Florida Southern College.

During the summers, and before the widespread availability of GPS, he was hired to map groves, noting the age and location of each tree.

“Those old maps are laughably rudimentary today, but back in 1994, it was great information that few growers were taking advantage of,” Summers said.

As GPS and other technologies emerged, “I was always trying to implement some gadget, software, or piece of technology to help streamline getting the information that was needed from the field to make better growing decisions,” he added.

He said he felt like a kid in a candy store, getting to work with both tractors and technology, and getting paid to do it.

These days these technologies are critical as growers work to maximize yield in the face of diseases like citrus greening and to implement best practices that are better for business as well as the environment.

The Lake Placid alumnus is married to Lake Placid Elementary vice principal Andrea Summers and also loves the way technology frees him up to spend time with daughters Katie, 10, and Sarah, 5.

In his spare time, Summers also serves as president of the Mason G. Smoak Foundation and is passionate about the group’s young leadership program and scholarship program, which gave out approximately $20,000 in scholarships last year.

This year’s Mason G. Smoak 5K race and Family Fun Festival is scheduled for Sept. 27 and will feature a “color splash,” where runners get “painted” with food coloring, according to the foundation’s web site.

“We want people to know that we have plans to expand the scholarship program into other counties in Florida’s Heartland, not just Highlands,” Summers added.