Our First Product Failed but the Project Didn’t: How Can That Be?

A main focus of Rural System, Inc. is sensible land management, improving productivity and reducing cost to the landowner. For most of us, land management starts at home with how we landscape, fertilize our gardens, and choose which plants to grow. Therefore, Rural System set out to design a computer application that would help homeowners with aspects of personal property management.  A bonus of this software is that it served as our first example of prescriptive software, demonstrating how software can generate a custom management plan based on the unique qualities of a particular property.

The foundation of land productivity is healthy soils.  Soil analysis is increasingly recommended by horticultural experts even for small, non-commercial properties and according to soil testing facilities, homeowners are listening. The Virginia Cooperative Extension soils lab reports that nearly 25% of their incoming samples are from residential areas. However, it’s clear from internet chatter and customer feedback that the lab reports generated by soil testing facilities are difficult to interpret for the average consumer. This can lead to inaccurate additions of soil treatments, like fertilizers, which can be costly as well as cause negative environmental repercussions. In addition, as a result of misinterpreting soil report recommendations, families wishing to supplement their food supply with homegrown vegetables can suffer low yields and sometimes total crop loss.

Welcome SoilsmartRx, the first software application designed to recommend soil amendments based on laboratory test results.

SoilSmartRx

In theory, programming such an application should be straightforward. If the soil report shows this numerical reading for a nutrient, then add this amount of amendment to correct to the desired amount.  Simple right? Wrong.

What we learned, and what ultimately lead to our inability to market this product in its current state, is that there are few, if any, standards among different testing labs in the soil testing industry. Each lab chooses their own strategy for analysis, for example which one of the five methods available they use to test phosphorous levels. There are also variations in units of measurement, variations in the chemical processes of extraction, and even which basic nutrients are analyzed in a standard test. Any attempt to generalize among these many variants essentially results in meaningless recommendations.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.  We chose to tackle a very difficult problem that needed improvement which is always risky. The result is a beautiful piece of prescriptive software which can help a homeowner optimize their fertilizer applications……but only if their lab used a specific set of methods to generate the test results. For that reason, it cannot be a marketable product.

It’s not all bad news! SoilsmartRx may not be a marketable product as of yet, but as a project it’s still a huge success. Technological advancement is about one person getting the ball rolling. This BETA version of soil-interpretation-and-recommendation software is the first of its kind and the modifications needed to make it a nationally applicable system are within reach.

SoilsmartRx also serves as a great demonstration of the potential power of Rural System technology. This software will be invaluable for acquiring future funding for our company and to demonstrate to the consumer what kind of products Rural System can offer. Further, for the right investor or customer, SoilsmartRx could be built to new specifications like a customized program for a particular soil processing lab.  Pioneering new developments is never easy, but once you get started you’re already ahead of the competition.

Update: We encourage you to try out the SoilsmartRx demonstration program. If you haven’t had soil testing done but want to check it out anyway, just Google “soil test report” under Images for example reports! – Oct 24, 2013

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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