Do you remember the old westerns of the good guy and the bad guys? Invariably the fight would start with a few good guys doing battle with a lot of bad guys. After the few good guys put up a valiant fight, the cavalry would be sent to rescue the valiant foot soldiers. I am waiting for the same thing to happen in conservation. If the foot soldiers are the conservation planning agencies and the bad guy is soil erosion, then who is the cavalry? I believe the cavalry is agri-business. If agri-business can figure out how to “make conservation pay its way” they can definitely be the cavalry and swoop in and rescue the day.
Yet again, a survey completed by CTIC and USDA’s SARE program demonstrates that farmers want their local ag retailers to provide conservation services. This latest survey showed that “surveyed farmers want their local retailers to provide help to monitor soil health and changes related to cover crops.”
This is just one of many studies that validate the importance of ag retailers to farmers. Many surveys have been taken of farmers and landowners. In every case, the survey participants indicated that ag retailers were a highly trusted source of information. Therefore, if we want to accelerate conservation implementation, it seems critical to get the ag retailer involved. Easier said than done…right? If ag retailer does get involved, how do they make money? That is the question that everyone is looking to solve.
Maybe we don’t have to look too far for a workable model. When I graduated from college, it was hard to imagine how a farmer could get agronomic recommendations from anyone but the Cooperative Extension Service. Extension did yield variety trials, conducted population trials, developed the recommendations for fertilizer application, helped farmers adjust planters, and made herbicide recommendations. In fact, what didn’t they do? It was hard to imagine farming without your Extension Agent.
During the last 20 years, it became difficult for the Extension Agents to keep up with the demand for agronomic information and new technology. Private business started filling the voids and making recommendations. These private businesses had to figure out how to “get paid” for offering services and competing with free services.
This is the same thing that needs to be parsed out today. But, for an ag retailer to be successful, some adjustments need to be made.
- Reduce the transactional costs of providing conservation planning services: Private businesses simply cannot afford to spend 8 to 20 hours on a waterway design. It is not possible to pass this hefty price tag on to a farmer.
- Reduce the learning curve: When I started with NRCS it took me a couple of years to get comfortable with conservation planning. Technology must be put in place that takes the pain of a steep learning curve away and lowers the entry barrier costs.
- Provide timely service: Land improvement contractors say farmers are no longer willing to wait 4 to 6 months for a practice design. Private business can add value by giving prompt service and removing the red tape.
- Use Technology: Ag retailers can adopt new software and provide machine control files in order to provide value added services.
- Bundle services: Ag retailers provide many services. Conservation planning can be added as a part of their regular activities instead and something special.
Private business is already making the transition to fee-based conservation planning. I am looking forward to making a significant announcement next week about one private business that is entering the conservation planning arena in a big way. Stay tuned…