Editor's note: To provide an update on the various professionals that interface daily with ag producers, we invited leaders of the trade associations that represent their profession to share their thoughts.
PROFESSIONAL FARM MANAGERS
By Ray Brownfield, AFM/ARA, President, ASFMRA
Land Pro LLC, Oswego, IL
The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA), in Denver, CO, currently has a membership of approximately 2,500 property economic professionals, primarily involved with agricultural property management, consulting and appraisal.
Statistics, which are somewhat dated, suggest approximately 15% of all U.S. farm and ranch land is managed by ASFMRA and an additional acreage is influenced by ASFMRA consultant recommendations. Over one half of the U.S. farmland is owned by non-farmers, with about 60% absentee-owned in the cornbelt. The number of acres managed and receiving consulting services is increasing yearly.
As a steady increase of baby boomers transition into retirement, more professional services are sought. The November 2005 issue of Ag Professional magazine shows that the fastest growing farm management firms in the U.S. posted 5% to 20% increases in acreage managed over that of the previous year. A growing number of landowners do not have the time to remain current with rapid development of new technology such as genetics, crop protection inputs and state-of-the-art equipment.
Professional farm managers and consultants spend countless hours remaining current so they can provide value added services to their clients. This is accomplished by reading publications, Web sites, attending field days and reviewing agricultural test plots. In fact, a number of farm managers provide a community service by planting and managing test plots on farms they manage, providing valuable information to farmers and landowners within the region.
The information gathered by the professional farm manager/consultant is utilized effectively when working with a farm operator as to the selection of seed, crop protection inputs, fertility programs, as well as the use of site specific technology and modern farming equipment. A strong trust factor is established between farm manager/consultant and farm operator. In many situations, in addition to the managed land, the farm operator will utilize recommendations from the farm manager/consultant on properties which he either owns or farms for other landowners. Most all farm operators also speak with neighbors about what is working and what is not, thus, decisions recommended by the farm manager/consultant are networked and multiplied to a myriad of other producers.
Most of the farm managers consultants know their recommendations are closely watched by the farming community, and they are very cognizant that any missteps regarding a loss of revenue can result in termination of the contract with their land owner.
Information, and its reliability, provided by the agri-business industry is extremely important to farm managers/consultants.
Most agri-business companies including seed companies, crop protection companies and equipment companies have designated representatives who primarily work with and provide pertinent information to the farm management/consulting industry. These are excellent relationships and have resulted in a consistently reliable information flow to the farm manager/consultant that can be utilized for the benefit of the farm operator and the farm owner. A win-win situation.
As time goes on, it is predicted the farm and ranch industry will continue to consolidate. Because of this growth, it is our vision that the consulting business will grow at an even a greater pace than the farm management industry. Many of the larger consolidating farmers are, and will be, in need of a specific expertise which the consulting discipline will provide. The ASFMRA provides a designation and continuing education program for its members. The Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) and Accredited Agricultural Consultant (ACC) designations are backed by years of experience, a testing program analogous to the CPA designation. A definite benefit to a potential client.
For quite some time, our consultant members have extended their service into Europe and Latin America. More recently, ASFRMA farm managers are providing services in Brazil and Argentina. My vision is that ASFMRA members through our cutting edge education and designation programs will continue to grow their business on a worldwide basis.
CERTIFIED CROP ADVISERS (CCA)
By Steve Dlugosz, CCA, 2004 Chairman, Int'l Certified Crop Adviser program
Agriliance, Indianapolis, IN
The sun is rising on another hot summer day as I pull my minivan into the farm lane. The corn is tasseling and the soybeans look great. Dodged the soybean rust bullet for another year and there are no real challenges at this point in time I think.
I stop the van, get out and head to the house to meet with my client. We share some small talk about the family and weekend activities and get to business. We talk about any pest challenges we may face and how best to combat them, any fertility needs and plans for the fall harvest.
I am one of over 13,500 Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) throughout the U.S. and Canada who advises growers on their agronomic production needs every day. Over 70% of the CCAs work for ag retail or farm cooperative businesses. They influence their grower clients on their practice and buying decisions by providing agronomic advice and product use information.
Assisting growers with product selection is a huge role. As many crop protection chemicals go off patent they are picked up by other companies, renamed and sold. Many times there is confusion on what it really is, especially when new premixes are released. Some may or may not be cheaper depending on the level of control they offer. Many old herbicides are enjoying new markets as part of the increase use of Roundup Ready on crops. These can play an important role in managing weed resistance issues. Many farmers do not understand these issues fully or the appropriate actions to take.
The issue of product selection is even more important in light of many crop protection strategies now being implemented through seed traits. There seems to be much confusion on need versus value as companies drive these technologies into the market. CCAs have a valuable role in helping sort out all this information so a grower can make sound decisions for their operation.
Product selection decisions can be based on many factors such as efficacy, cost, application method, timing, company marketing programs, risk management and value to name a few. Different growers prioritize these factors for their way of thinking. A CCA will help evaluate all these factors and work with the grower based on their needs. This is a challenging task in this day and age of price sensitivity.
Factors affecting CCAs directly are the same factors that affect his grower and employer. Each part of the industry (retail, manufacturer, and seed company) has its own unique issues affecting its business. Daily expectations for a CCA may be different today than they were 10 years ago but sound agronomic principles help guide the way.
In most regions of the country there are less growers but many are larger. How they conduct business has changed for many CCAs. Many growers seem to consider input costs as a major factor affecting their operations. A CCA will take this into account of course, but also help keep him focused on practices and products that improve yields and overall profitability.
Impacting the profession in corn/soybeans is definitely the widespread adoption of Roundup Ready and other seed traits. What may be viewed by many as a simplification of these cropping systems has actually complicated some of the grower's production practices. This is a great opportunity for CCAs to help the grower fine tune these programs and maximize his profitability. That's why CCAs are viewed as a trusted business partner by the grower and the face of the business they represent.
Many employers have supported the CCA program indirectly by directly supporting their employees to become and remain certified. Their commitment to the CCA program reinforces their commitment to their employees and their customers to provide the best service possible through a highly trained and qualified staff. It is also reinforcing their commitment to provide advice that is both economical and environmentally sound for the farmer clients that they serve. It is truly a great success story for production agriculture.
By Dave Coppess, Chairman, Ag Retailers Assn, Heartland Co-op, W. Des Moines, IA
A recent survey conducted by Iowa State University asked farmers to identify where they get the information they need to make sound management decisions and efficiently run their business for long-term sustainability? Greater than 90% responded that they rely on their local ag retailer.
Information management is rapidly becoming the most important service offered through America's 8,000 ag retail outlets. Product devaluation and diminishing sales margins continue to drive crop input commoditization. As profits sag, ag retailers are turning to information services to create differentiation and customer value that will attract and retain long-term business.
Through the use of precision ag technology utilizing grid-sampled soil data, GPS yield mapping, variable rate application practices, weather records, and other pertinent input, ag retailers are able to generate a wealth of information to help growers produce and market their crops more profitably. The information collected is used to help make decisions on soil and water management, cropping practices, seed trait selection, crop nutrient recommendations, crop protection requirements, and various trouble shooting situations.
The collection and use of this information, coupled with a close personal interaction, fosters a strong bond between the grower and their ag retailer. This bond is an invaluable "bridge" that efficiently links channel partners to the acre. Channel partners are usually thought of as input suppliers, but with the onset of identity preserved crops the definition is broadened to include grain processors and even consumers.
The very nature of agriculture involves a lot of risk (unfavorable weather patterns, pests, volatile markets, etc.). Ag retailers have always been involved with helping customers manage and minimize these risks. Today, with skyrocketing energy costs, wild swings in fertilizer prices, and an escalating demand for crops as biofuel sources the need for more sophisticated risk management tools is inherit. Ag retailers are responding by ex-panding their CCA's role as Technical Service Providers (TSPs), offering a broader range of grain marketing programs, crop insurance, and a full spectrum of other business management services. Forward pricing contracts for fertilizer with the potential for a total acre input package to be forward priced against future grain sales are being developed and tested.
Ag retailers continue to be strong advocates on behalf of their customers. As factory farming practices continue to be adopted by farmers, the need for responsible stewardship and sound environmental practices continue to grow. The professional ag retailer of today understands regulatory and legislative processes. These processes must be directed and shaped to maintain an effective balance between fair legislation and rules, and an over-reaching government with ineffective policies and practices. Growers tell their input suppliers they want their involvement in retail trade organizations, like Ag Retailers Association (ARA). They want additional support from their supplier to compliment their own involvement in ag commodity groups. Farmers recognize their ag retailer is an effective "information bridge" linking them and their acres to the world.
NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF INDEPENDENT CROP CONSULTANTS (NAICC)
By Allison Jones, Exec VP, Collierville, TN
Increasing complexities in regulation, technology, the marketplace - nearly everywhere we turn - practically demand that we seek expertise in specific areas to ensure business vitality.
Certainly that's the case in the agriculture industry. Crop consultants and researchers have become invaluable assets to growers, from relaying the latest in environmental requirements to staying abreast of the impact of plant disease impact worldwide. That's in addition, naturally, to managing pest and plant diseases, enhancing yields, ensuring soil vitality season after season and more.
The impact of these ag professionals is vast: The 495 independent consultants and researchers who comprise NAICC, for example, directly influence management decisions on more than 27 million crop acres throughout the U.S.!
Experts in crop care, integrated crop and pest management, contract research, biotechnology, sustainable ag and more, these consultants cover a wide range of crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, wheat, citrus, rice, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Each consultant is also an expert in technology, in part to maximize business efficiency, but also to help ensure their clients are able to harness the technology at their fingertips.
A survey of NAICC members performed three years ago (light years when it comes to technological advancements!) indicated that the majority of members correspond with clients via e-mail, often from the cab of a truck. Electronic reporting, GIS, cell phones and other handheld devices are routinely used to ensure accuracy and expediency.
NAICC plays a role in ensuring members are up to date with technological advancements through events like the Alliance's upcoming annual meeting, which will include an emerging technologies session.
Researchers and consultants leverage the Internet heavily to keep rural America abreast of global issues that could affect growers, such as Asian soybean rust. Consultants also now more than ever network with colleagues around the globe, learning new techniques and expanding resources. NAICC's membership reflects this increased globalization, with a growing number of members from countries outside the U.S.
Product recommendations area consultants have most relied upon, have increased their complexity in recent years, too, with more regulatory controls, a growing array of integrated management solutions and new products.
In response, consultants and researchers steep themselves in research trials, seminars, workshops, sales presentations and more to keep abreast of the latest solutions. Their objectivity and "cutting edge" insight, along with a massive network that can be called upon for "on the job" insight, help ensure their clientele is provided the best possible recommendation for their specific needs.
The real measurement of these efforts comes into play not only in clients' fields, but in neighboring spreads. A 2004 study of NAICC members indicated that 80% of respondents' prescriptions affect decisions made by non-clients - a testament to the credibility of consultants and researchers.
Whether directly or indirectly influencing ag processes, consultants and researchers' impact is only expected to grow in coming years as growers face increased complexities in the field, market, among regulatory agencies and more. And organizations like NAICC will be expected to ensure their members are prepared.