Role of the Private Crop Consultant in Implementation of IPM

Maggie Jones, CPCC-I
Blue Earth Agronomics, Inc.
Lake Crystal, MN 56055
E-mail: blueland@mnic.net

Crop consulting is a challenging, exciting, and rewarding profession! It's a profession of personal relationships; a consultant becomes an integral part of a farmer's production team. It's a profession that is field-based; dirt on our shoes is a requirement. It's a profession based on science; but instinct and innovation guide us where science cannot.

It's a profession I love, and have dedicated much time to promoting. My wish is that one day, in a first grade classroom, a student will dream of becoming a crop consultant. And when that student arrives in college he or she will find a professional degree program preparing crop consultants for the world, just as today we prepare veterinarians and physicians...

The work of a crop consultant is to help a farmer raise the best crop possible within economic and environmental parameters. To a farmer, adoption of a concept like integrated pest management (IPM) requires commitment and often a willingness to change. That willingness only grows out of understanding.

The consultant, working one-on-one, can assist in that process. But it requires listening skill. It requires an open mind. It requires careful analysis of the situation. It requires much time.

The one-on-one, field-by-field method we employ may seem slow in a fast-paced world. But it works. The time we sell has value to farmers. And it goes a long way to ensure that IPM, as one example, really and truly is implemented in the field.

Maybe I can give you a sense of this by talking about a new client of mine.

Tim is exactly the kind of client I like. Intelligent, profitable, innovative, respected...

Most of my clients have worked with me for over ten years and we're a well-rehearsed team. But Tim is new, and that's a different story. Established clients feel trust and confidence in me and my recommendations, but not Tim. Not yet.

Tim is REALLY new. He lives in an area I've never worked before. His neighbors have never heard of me. His fertilizer and chemical dealers have never heard of me. He was brave to hire me, but he knew he needed some help.

He has a lot of hogs, therefore a lot of manure. He has never tested his manure, never treated it as fertilizer. He has applied it where most convenient, and now his fields are a patchwork of high fertility and low. He's concerned about nitrogen fertilizer polluting the groundwater and has read extension publications telling him to cut the rate where he applied manure. But, how much? The number suggested was "way too low for his farm."

He's been using the herbicide everyone else in the area likes best. So why are his fields full of ragweed?

He's been trying to decide what kind of tillage equipment to buy. He heard a scientist from the University say it's acceptable to moldboard plow many of the fields in southern Minnesota. His fields were all yellow when he tried to farm without plowing, so he's sure his land needs "lots of tillage."

He automatically uses insecticide on his continuous corn acres because the dealership gives him such a good deal.

He suspects soybean cyst nematode is reducing soybean yields. But he hasn't been sure.

He needs a little integrated crop management on his farm.

He attends plenty of extension meetings, and he reads their publications. He has one on manure management, one on soybean cyst nematode, and one on tillage. He talks to his local dealer all the time, and his NRCS agent too. He attends field days at the nearest experiment station. He serves on his county's task force on manure mangement.

So good grief, why can't he pull it all together and make it work on his farm?

In 1992, the EPA/USDA National IPM Forum developed a list of constraints to implementation of IPM. But most of the participants in that forum were from the public sector (in other words, farmers and private consultants were mostly absent). So a series of regional workshops were held seeking the missing input.

The farmers were asked why they weren't adopting IPM, and they came up with some things the experts hadn't thought of. The farmers said they were confused by the differing agendas and conflicting messages they heard about IPM. (Conflicting messages??) They also admitted they didn't always understand the economic benefits of IPM. (Economics??) They didn't even really understand the "total production system" approach. (What is IPM, anyway??)

Confusion about IPM. Concern about making money. That sounds like Tim.

The pesticide and fertilizer dealer tells him one thing. He reads something different in his favorite farm publication. One extension specialist says one thing, and another says something that sounds a little different. The environmental community says one thing, the neighbors say another. His banker's opinion carries a lot of weight too.

What is IPM? What will it do for him? What will it do on his farm, in his economic situation, with his equipment, his weeds, his labor supply, his management skills? Why should HE risk change when he has no proof it will work? It may put him out of business.

Tim cannot, will not, change without help. He will stay with what he knows, with what is comfortable and safe. If he does not understand or have confidence in a system, he will not use it.

He can be bribed with government payments. He can be punished with government penalties. Change can be forced, short-term. But if the Tims of the world do not understand a concept or its relevance to their situation, they will not fully adopt it. They will not make it their own.

IPM is as much art as science. It looks a little different on every field, every year. How can a concept like that become relevant to each and every producer...relevant enough that they will adopt it and make it their own..?

Tim needed someone to pull all the pieces together, the pieces of HIS puzzle. He needed someone to help him understand that puzzle, so he could decide what to do about it. Someone to spend time on his farm, in his fields. Someone to take the time to listen to his problems and help him find practical answers. Someone to care about his survival.

Tim found it impossible to be an expert on everything he encountered in his farming operation. He had already learned to utilize advice from an accountant, an attorney, and a broker. Now he needed someone to consistently and regularly answer his questions about crop production, and help him decide on solutions. Regularly, not once.

Cropping systems are dynamic and ever-changing. They require constant observation in the field, and he doesn't have the time, or the expertise, for that.

Many of the salespeople selling him seed or pesticides are narrowly focused on their products. The state and county extension people are only able to address a general audience. But his problems are specific to him. A generalized answer won't work. Narrowly focused answers often ignore inter-relationships.

Tim needed to have confidence in the solutions. He needed to understand the science they were based on. Most of all, he needed to find a professional he could trust to help him take the leap of faith required in making change. He hired me.

I spent two days mapping and sampling the soil in his fields. I spent three hours listening to him and helping sort through his maze of problems. I went back a month later so his brother could ask questions too.

He and I are not a well-rehearsed team yet. He's new. This summer he'll worry about using a different herbicide than his neighbors. If the corn looks a little yellow he'll be sure the nitrogen rate I recommended was too low. He's already sure, but he paid me lots of money to tell him what rate was best, so he'll try, once. He'll panic if any of his neighbors spray for cutworm or corn borer and he doesn't. He's very worried about the new applicator he bought for sidedressing manure. What if it rains and the corn gets too tall and...

But he'll see me on his farm. Regularly. Frequently. Every time he asks a question I'll answer, or find the answer.

Gradually he will trust me and trust my recommendations. Gradually he'll understand the IPM concept. Maybe he won't be able to say it in words, but he will be thinking it. He'll approach problems with a different mindset. He will appreciate his manure as a resource. He will target specific pest and fertility problems. He will be more aware of inter-relationships, inter-actions, integration. Tim WILL think differently.

He will be implementing IPM on his farm this summer. He will not just be hearing about it, thinking about it, or worrying about it. He will be implementing it. And I'll be right there, supporting him.

Summary

Despite all the sophisticated information delivery systems available today, the hands-on, one-on-one, field-by-field service provided by trained professionals is by far the most effective method for helping a farmer adopt new management systems in response to new information. Now, more than ever, farmers need professional advice to develop and implement economically and environmentally sustainable plans which will meet their unique needs, and be practical on their farms. They are willing to pay private consultants for that expertise, finding that such services pay for themselves.

Addendum

A survey conducted by Doane Agricultural Services in 1993 demonstrated that independent crop consultants (those who have no connection to product sales) were consulting on 49% of the cotton, 50% of the vegetables, 39% of the rice, 19% of the corn, and 12% of the soybeans in this country. That number continues to grow, as does the need for professional degree programs able to prepare more consultants. The national organization representing these professionals, the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC). has grown rapidly the last several years. Allison Jones, Executive Director of the NAICC can be reached at 752 E. Brookhaven Circle, Suite 240, Memphis TN 38117, phone 901-683-9466, FAX 901-761-3692.

The Certified Professional Crop Consultant (CPCC), and the Independent Certified Professional Crop Consultant (CPCC-I) programs are administered by the NAICC. NAICC founded in 1978, is the national society of agricultural professionals who provide research and advisory services to clients for a fee. The 450 members work from bases in 40 states and several foreign countries, and have expertise in the production of most crops grown around the world.