Today’s blog is written by Joe Lally, Independent Ag Consultant from Denison, Iowa. Last year, Lally retired from working for more than 12 years at Iowa State University. Previously, he worked for nearly 30 years as an Environmental and Natural Resources Manager for Farmland Foods. In retirement, Lally continues to find ways to be involved with helping the field of agriculture.
Yes, ag retailers must actively encourage and assist farmers with soil and water conservation issues. That is a must. And the conservation community must help ag retailers overcome implementation barriers.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work on a project called Ag Retailers – Barriers to Conservation Management. I would like to share with you a little bit about this project and some of the findings that I discovered.
I began this project by conducting needs assessments with 15 different ag retailers in Iowa to better understand the challenges they face when bringing conservation into their discussions with farmers. While conducting these needs assessments, the primary areas that were reviewed included:
- What existing investments are already in place for conservation management?
- What is the status of the CCA (Certified Crop Advisors) and sales staff?
- What are the current interactions they are having with landowners, tenants and with absentee landowners?
- How does information technology impact how they interact with farmers? and
- What value added services are currently available to farmers?
After compiling the results of the needs assessments, I met with a number of different advisors to review the information and narrow down the main issues ag retailers are facing. Six issues came to the forefront through the analysis.
Farmers are not asking for help with conservation.
If farmers are not asking for help, retailers felt it was difficult to bring up conservation because of a fear of sounding accusatory towards the farmer. Since ag retailers rely on income provided by their farmer customers, they fear losing them as customers by bringing up the subject of conservation.
Ag retailers lack adequate training for conservation planning.
Without proper training, ag retailers feel uneasy starting a conversation and trying to sell farmers on implementing practices that they don’t fully understand. The majority of the ag retailers surveyed receive most of their training internally.
Ag retailers have little contact with absentee landowners.
Almost all their interaction solely involves the farm operator. If permanent practices are needed, many times that requires involvement of both the landowner and the tenant while farming practices generally only need the consent of the operator.
Technology is becoming more important each year.
The ag retailers surveyed agreed that more technology needs to be incorporated at the ag retailer level to provide additional feedback and gain the attention of the farmers. Currently, most ag retailers surveyed do not use their company websites as an interactive way to reach farmers. Some websites have no contact information listed to enable electronic communication.
Farmers use cell phones regularly but rarely get on a computer or use email.
Ag retailers suggested having an app for conservation that is mobile friendly would put the information at the farmer’s fingertips. They mentioned that currently the primary apps farmers are using are related to grain market quotes and weather.
Ag retailers are regularly on the farm.
Ag retailers provide a number of different tasks such as soil sampling, nutrient application and advice on crop yields. They visit the farms and can see first-hand if there is a need for conservation and be able to provide the farmer information directly related to their land.
The main conclusion that was discovered through this project was the need for assistance with helping ag retailers start the conversations with the farmer about conservation. Training and education are the important first step. A collaborative effort will be necessary.
Joe Lally – thanks for your insights. I was immersed in this issue in 2006, when I developed and implemented the state’s (MN) first NRCS-approved conservation planner course for agronomists. I charged $500 for the 9-day course and was told no one would show up because there is no value/demand for conservation planning. A total of 35 enrolled (28 CCA and 7 SWCD) and went through each session about one/month.
The technology was much different but the other issues you mention were similar. What I learned was that the system in place was and is still not conducive for the private sector to productively engage in conservation planning and implementation. I also recognized that the value of CCAs is highly discounted in the entire conservation delivery system then and it still is.
I felt strongly enough about its shortcomings and it inevitable lack of success that I developed several public-private delivery models for industry and state government and suggested changes to the USDA TechReg including the addition of a Resource Assessor TSP to support conservation planners.
When I began the course in Feb, 2006, I said the intention should be to combine the producers’ production plan and conservation plan into one plan. The CCA’s [correctly] responded that I need to make it easier. I agreed and developed a streamlined process based on outcomes and adaptive management. Hopefully with continued efforts and insights such as yours people will begin to accept that the barriers for conservation planning are not those the CCAs have to clear, but for the government agencies have to lower. Best, Tim
Very good talking points. The one talking point that I have found to be a major barrier to improved conservation approved farming has been the lack of knowledge and the lack of interest by the CCA’s and their employer – our local Cooperatives. This past year was the first year a no-till plot was part of their research program. Hard to believe it took them until 2015 to acknowledge the use of no-till or strip till as an approved conservation practice. If we are going to move the issue of conservation and help producers see methods that return more to their bottom line, it will only come through these test plots in the hometown arena of the producer, not through large ag corporation data or university studies. It has to be demonstrated on their local turf to be accepted as a proven method that works on soils like their own.
G Todd Comer, GISP
Educational engagement is indeed a priority. It is one thing to have experts in the field that understand the situation, the data and components necessary to achieve expected results. It is quite another to have have experts that are able to actually demonstrate how following specific practices will benefit their operation.