Writers Note: As we come into the sacred holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas-thanksgiving for freedom from oppression and the celebration of eternal life, I think about food. To me, the success of any community or group begins with having the most basic of needs met. Food, shelter, and protection from harm being the most basic of these. Being one who has always been involved in helping provide the first of the three, I write this with an eye on the past, one on the present and thinking about the future. If you have read my prior posts you will know that I do not write for reasons of malice. Rather, I write to simply show what is happening and in the process hope to make people stop and think, even if for a few seconds, about the topic at hand. With that said, I believe Thomas Jefferson said it much better than I ever could when he said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” I realize that as I write I also learn and consider and hope you do the same.
Often Neglected or Not Discussed
The Agronomy Retail Industry in the United States is a hard industry to measure. It is as creative and varied as the farmers it serves. Adapting and evolving over the past 80 years, it has become this very efficient group of people and companies that provide two basic things. First, get product to the farmer in a timely fashion to grow your food. Second, provide sound advice and guidance to the farmer growing your food. That’s it in a nutshell. What concerns me is that while the plight of the farmer and consumer are being read about more and more in social media, the Agronomy Retail Industry remains a somewhat silent partner in agriculture. While I don’t pretend to have answers to the topics that I will briefly touch on, I feel as much as it is up to me, I must write none the less. In doing so, I know that those quiet souls who are in this small group of people will readily identify while the other 99.5% of the United States population may just be reading this for the first time.
If whales are the behemoths of the ocean that run silent and deep and only surface very so often for us to see, then the Agronomy Retailer is such a species. And, like the whales, is undergoing an intense level of pressure. The successful Agronomy Retailer has four primary areas of opportunities as we work our way towards 2020 and beyond. And being that they are the professionals who make crop recommendations, can we not say that it all relates to food which means there could be over 318 million potential opinions on how they do their job….and that doesn’t include those in other customers around the world.
What is the Agronomy Retail industry? Well, it provides all the products…seed, fertilizer, herbicides to the farmer to grow the crops that are grown. How many of them are there? That’s a great question. Being such a very small and unique group, it isn’t really even well measured by the NAICS system for quantifying industries. It’s not necessarily any fault of anyone. The farm supply industry used to be comprised of the traditional Feed Store. All things related to farming were bought at the Feed Supply Store (SIC 5191) The farm supply industry has changed, the tools to qualify the industry have not.
The exact size of the population that comprises Agronomy Retail is hard to measure…By my estimate, I would say about the size of Binghamton, NY. The next time the rest of the population of the United States grouses about the food they eat, I would respectfully remind them that a group of around 100,000 people provide the items needed to raise the crop that feed the animals that they eat, the milk, ice cream and yogurt they eat, as well as about half of the salad and fruit they consume every day. While the farmer provides you what you eat today, the Agronomy Retailer provides guidance and supplies to help that farmer feed the rest of us into the next months and years.
For those of us who are visual, here is a better way to explain. Picture yourself at a concert with 20,000 people there. Based on U.S. census figures, you would have 300 farmers there. Of those 300 farmers, 5 would produce 41% of what you eat. Pretty startling, isn’t it. Now ask yourself, “Who supplies the farmer the seed, fertilizer, and herbicide to growth that crop?” That would be the Agronomy Retailer dude and I am guessing you would find about 5 of those people in that concert. Those five people supply the 300 farmers the seeds, fertilizer, herbicides and how to use all of these in a sustainable fashion to feed all 20,000 of us.
I believe the four areas for Agronomy retailer success deal with consumer relations, adaptation to the socio-economic changes of farming, increased self-governance in environmental stewardship, and prudent adaptation of technology.
As long as we utilize a purely Free Enterprise style of business, the consumer will have the ultimate say on how and what they buy. Their food dollars will drive the rest of the system. Yes, marketing campaigns by food manufacturers and efforts by USDA and others will help to form the consumer opinion on food. But at the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s dollar that pays the grocer that pays the manufacturer that pays the farmer that pays the Agronomy Retailer. With the farmer getting seventeen and one-half cents of the food dollar, the Agronomy Retailer gets his cut from those pennies. With the Agronomy Retailer making a living on the pennies given to the farmer for his crops, very Agronomy Retail industry becomes very competitive in nature and undergoes massive consolidation. The consumer is becoming much further removed from farming and is sensing this. It would be my opinion that we as humans tend to become the most concerned about things we have the least control over. Does that not apply to your life? I know it does mine. And with the advent of social media and all the science behind it, the feeling of concern and worry can easily be broadcasted to millions in a matter of seconds. While the neighbors surrounding the field that get sprayed may be understanding, the other millions are not so forgiving. Given the neat little gadget called the Smart Phone, the consumer is able to begin filling their desire to learn more about that which they have the least control over in the United States….their food. If I am speaking out of turn, then why are organic farming and the CSA movement two areas of farming with real sustainable growth? If we smirk at this, we show our lack of customer awareness. We in the Agronomy Retail world need to step up to address the concerns of the consumer.
Farming and the socio-economic changes of the past 20 years.
In keeping with the time-honored traditions of successful retailing, the Agronomy Retailer forms a very close bond with the customer….the American Farmer. In fact, the farmer trusts the Agronomy Retailer more than anyone else…including the USDA and Extension Agents. The Stratus Research Group polled over 1700 farmers and found a resounding theme…regardless of what part of the United States the majority of the farmers place SERVICE as the number one reason for dealing with the fertilizer dealer they chose. Not price, not programs, but service. Can anyone say, “National Food Sovereignty” and “National Food Security”? It’s the Agronomy Retailer who bears the weight of these decisions. Because of the need for greater and more uniform education, the Certified Crop Adviser Program came into existence to help provide a certain documented level of training in sound agronomy practices. To date we have several thousand of us who have this accreditation and we must work hard to maintain our legitimacy through continuing education.
The actual statistics for the industry are rather hard to measure. As stated earlier, being such a small and evolving group, the Agronomy Retailer as an industry is very hard to measure. However, we can draw some pretty strong correlations to the world of the farmer. Just as the auto industry is affected and adapts to your buying habits, so does the same happens in this situation.
In around 1996 the world of the farmer in the United States changed in a very powerful and fundamental way. Genetically Modified Crops came to the scene and the ramifications were immense. This cannot be overstated. It is estimated that by 2013 there were in excess of 170 million acres of these types of crop. I believe that is for the three primary crops of soybeans, corn, and cotton. In all, the Agronomy Retailers now help to manage over six different crops with 188 different “events” listed so far for the United States. How many of these are being marketed at this time I cannot say without further research. However, I can say that all are regulated by USDA-APHIS, and all have an added layer of record keeping as well as stewardship issues due to the issues of Resistance Management. The
United States leads the world with over 150 identified unique resistant weeds according to
WeedScience.org. This does not include the growing resistance management issues we are facing with insects of both man made pesticides and GMO traits such as the Corn Root Worm trait.
The introduction of GMO soybeans in 1996 was the beginning of what I would consider the biggest change in U.S. farming since hybridized corn. However, that is just my opinion. According the USDA about 95% of our soybean and almost 90% of our corn acres now have some sort of GE trait. Of our corn acres, we have 71% that have two or more traits. The Agronomy Retailer sold about 1% of his corn seed as a GE trait in the year 2000. By the year 2013 that had grown to 71%. The level of expertise needed to effectively manage such crop is substantial.
The typical “farmer customer” for the Agronomy Retailer is nothing like what they were just 25 years ago. With the advent of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crops, like soybeans, the labor investment made by the farmer to raise the crop dropped. It didn’t drop just a little…..it dropped a lot. According to
FieldtoMarket.org the socioeconomic contribution of current cropping practices is substantial. Practices since 1990 have reduced hours per acre worked by over 50% for some crops. The USDA estimates that the American Farmer now uses 78% less labor to grow the same amount of crops as compared to 1948. The American Farmer is not a lazy type of person. If there was ever a resourceful bunch of people, it is the American Farmer. If there was ever a more industrious bunch, it was the American Farmer. Just like the Ant in Aesop’s Fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, the American farmer set to growing more with less. Without having any new land to farm, this led to a much higher level of consolidation. The farmer of the 1980’s farmed less than 600 acres. But being raised on the principal of “idle hands are the devil’s handiwork”, the farming landscape is consolidating. Today, the average farmer is about double the size with about 1,100 ACRES under management. As one who has spent most of his career in Agronomy Retail, there is nothing more interesting in the heat of the season than when the planting season is about one-quarter of the way through and the ground is getting right and “the second planter in the shed” comes out and now double the ground is covered each day. Needless to say, it puts quite a strain on the entire system, from inventory control to payroll and asset management, to logistics, to customer service and office management. Meanwhile, there is a growing social awareness as to the support that farming receives, and be it correct or incorrect, the opinions of an ag system that is removed from the consumer is intensified. This is the arena we conduct ourselves in.
As the farmers grow, so do the demands for assistance with stewardship. This brings me to the next opportunity.
Environmental Stewardship and Regulatory Compliance
The arena of environmental stewardship is becoming an area of timely importance. Just as food is something we all need, so do we all need a healthy environment. I am not casting aspersions at any one group when I write this. What I do mean to do is bring out for consideration the issues that the Agronomy Retailer faces. This is becoming a very treacherous one.
As I mentioned before, the arena of environmental stewardship is a common denominator for everyone.
All of us need things such as clean water. With the passing of the Clean Water Act of 1972 the Federal Government, through the oversite of the EPA put very broad regulations into effect. And, candidly, it was because of such action that programs like the Certified Crop Adviser program came into existence.
Since then, we have had what would be considered varying degrees of success. However, we as an industry are still involved in some very drawn out stewardship battles. The USGS concluded in its “Nitrate in the Mississippi River and Its Tributaries, 1980–2010: An Update” that while some of the tributary basins were showing improvements, the overall results were not showing much, if any improvement.,, I am one who does not jump on one factoid and draw a conclusion. However, when the USGS puts something in writing it is worth considering. However, to draw more attention to the issues of water quality we have the outbreak of Harmful Algal Blooms of Lake Erie that are now starting to look like a reminder of the 1970’s, and the scrutiny given the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, 30 years ago. The Heidelberg University has been doing water quality monitoring for almost the same length of time for the Lake Erie watershed, conducting a broad study going back decades involving thousands of data points. In the process, it provides invaluable information for helping us learn how our actions affect water quality. With technology developing at the rate it is, we in Agronomy Retailing will need to increase our awareness of our professional recommendations and redouble our efforts for timely training of our professional agronomy advisors. With tile lines and nitrate pollution becoming a bigger and bigger issue, technology will allow for a much more advanced monitoring program. I am confident that Non-Point Pollution will become more and more “Direct Point” as monitoring capabilities increase.
Finally, I would say that when we are dealing with the environment we are dealing with a very sensitive part of our nation’s well-being. So much so that in 1994 Executive Order 12898 was signed and the Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool was created to help with efforts to guide those who take part in helping communities with environmental issues., We as Agronomy Retailers will always need to remain diligent in working with our local communities and help to address any concerns they may have so as to show that we acknowledge their concerns. The key area here is not the cleanliness of our facilities. Now, the area in question is the farmer’s field and the way those farming practices affect the area around it. As more light is shed on the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, and even smaller bodies like Cayuga Lake and hundreds more like it, we will need to give an accounting of our actions to an inquiring public. Non-Government Organizations like the Partnership for Ag Resource Management have come about as such issues draw more and more awareness. Being relatively free to the industry, this is about as good as it gets for technical support and training.
The size of our customers creates major time constraints on the Agronomy Retailer and a how the balance of regulations/environment/customer service will become more intricate as we move forward.
Just as Winston Churchill considered technology a bane and a savior of society, so do we in agriculture. I believe the reason is that we have such a diverse group of farmers (small business owners) who are very independent and very creative. We, as an industry, are very adaptive and very use to having to deal with the unknown. (What other industry plans everything around the weather??) Consequently, we have almost as many ways to farm as we do farmers. The adaptation of technology varies by region, by farming type, by age, and by style. However, with the collapse in the price of the computer processor unit and the coinciding exponentially greater ability to process data, the Ag Industry was ripe for Data Integration. With the advent of Open Source Formatting and Data Amalgamation, we can now begin to make sense of field and farm information that up until today was virtually impossible to do. Even Precision Agriculture software that just 10 years ago had to be loaded on your local tower computer, can now be accessed by any computer, anywhere to make highly accurate agronomy recommendations….as accurate as the information given, that is! We in Agronomy Retail are one of the last industries that did not have much to do with such technology. Due to our work environment (outdoors, rain, heat, cold), we did not have the hardware suitable until thanks to our military, rugged and affordable outdoor grade hardware came into being. The advent of the Smart Phone simply ramped up an already quickly accelerating area into warp drive. Now, the industry is faced with having to wade through a myriad of software solution offerings.
However, at the end of the day it all gets back to the customer….the farmer and the use of his farm data. This is a very serious arena with some yet to be determined ramifications relative to data security and just who owns the data in use. This demands serious consideration and if you do not have a data security protocol in place for farm data, I would think you should seriously consider seeking counsel that specializes in this area to assist you in putting a written protocol in place, including staff training. As we are all one big happy family in the arena of agriculture, the equipment manufacturers and the Agronomy Retailers are the ones who will be touching this information the most.
This is just a small piece of what the Agronomy Retailer has to deal with to make sure food gets put on the table. Much more could be said about food and what we do to provide it to you and your family.