Tips for choosing an ag consultant
By R.F. Meyer
Golden Plains Extension Agent, Agronomy
The science of farming is becoming more complex each year. Farmers increasingly deal with unforgiving agricultural pests while using new and improved farming methods. Methods that sometimes change rather quickly based on scientific research findings. In addition to established pests attacking agricultural crops, new pests also are a threat. Further, there are more than just a handful of pesticides available as tools for rescuing crops. The current crop protection chemical reference is over 2000 pages.
Farmers can choose to gather all the information they can via Extension, local seed and chemical companies, agricultural magazines and newsletters, trade shows, field tours, and even from neighbors. Then, armed with this new knowledge, farmers can apply it during the growing season to crop production problems encountered. Much of this information is available at little or no direct cost. Another option for producers who neither have the time nor technical expertise is hiring an agricultural consultant, a trained agronomist who can focus on a farm's production issues during the growing season. This is a farm management strategy that is working for many producers. Surveys indicate over 5million acres are serviced by crop consultants nationwide with 21 percent of producers employing them mostly in the Midwestern region of the U.S. According to the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, average acres for producers who employ a consultant is approximately 2,000.
Agricultural consultants are individuals trained especially toward agricultural pest problem solving. Most have a minimum four years of college and many have advanced degrees in agricultural sciences. A number of services are offered including scouting a farm's crops for insects, diseases, fertility problems, and even irrigation scheduling. Other services offered are soil sampling, ag chemical recommendations, equipment calibration, and record keeping. Further, prescriptions for most pesticides are not advised until an economic threshold for that pest is reached within the crop, insuring a farm is not only economically efficient but environmentally sound, as well. In addition, irrigation scheduling services makes the most efficient use of irrigation water, applying agricultural water to crops when needed.
Many consultants offer fees that can be geared toward a farm's needs; soil testing, contract scouting, or a fully integrated crop management plan (limited or full service). Part of the fees cover a consultant's time to do the legwork of off-season (winter) updates. According to NAICC, fees range from $5 per acre for streamlined services to $30 per acre for high value crops.
Off-season offers consultants opportunities to educate and update themselves on what's new in agriculture. During this period consultants attend Cooperative Extension meetings, review the latest crop research, and contact the agribusiness industry for updates regarding new products. Essentially, gathering the latest information on every new aspect of crop production. Larger consulting companies offer staff in-service training. What's more, a national crop consultants organization, the NAICC, and a national association of agronomists, the American Society of Agronomy, offers certification programs where exams are taken for plant science certification. Indeed, most consultants are now card carrying Certified Crop Advisors. Further, keeping current with new agricultural production information, most consultants receive newsletters (Extension and others) that cover topics such as ag production news as well as agricultural political and farm program information.
So who do you choose? Allison Jones, NAICC executive vice-president, suggests producers choose a consultant with whom they feel very comfortable. Someone you can easily talk to, because communication is as necessary as summer precipitation. Most consultants agree that they are there to help in decision making, and not there to necessarily make decisions for producers. As a result, the extent, location, and economic threshold of a discovered pest many times needs adequate and detailed consultant-grower communication. Therefore, a "good fit" between producer and consultant is essential.
Furthermore, most consultants now have mobile phones and e-mail addresses which make them accessible for immediate client questions.
Important criteria for choosing an agricultural consultant includes a number of factors. Questions asked of a potential consultant could include:
--What services will be delivered--full or specific to a production problem?
--What is the crop scouting frequency?
--What is your experience with each crop I grow?
--Do you have a support network for further information, if needed?
--Is your source of income based on clients like myself, or from product sale?
--How many acres do you manage? Do you have help available?
--Why are you the best person for this job?