“All of us in agriculture and crop nutrient [and] environmental management need to work together…for the benefit of our business…and producers.” ~ Agricultural retailer comment in the 4R Survey.

Why should the agricultural retailer industry care about working with conservation districts to help farmers accelerate the adoption of 4R nutrient stewardship practices? That’s a fair question.

Before we discuss partnering with conservation districts, here is a working definition of 4R nutrient stewardship. It is a philosophy based on an innovative, science-based approach that can enhance environmental protection and increase farmer profitability. The 4R approach to nutrient stewardship integrates the Right fertilizer source, at the Right rate, at the Right time, with the Right placement.

“The fertilizer industry has been working to broaden the 4R nutrient stewardship effort and improving the working relationship between agricultural retailers and other service providers as one of the keys to accelerating producer adoption of 4R nutrient stewardship,” said Lara Moody, director of stewardship programs, The Fertilizer Institute.

Regulations and Opportunities

One important reason agricultural retailers should be interested in partnering with conservation districts is the nutrient run-off challenge facing agriculture. Calls are intensifying for increased use of regulations to control non-point source losses of nutrients. Recent examples of pending agricultural regulations include the Total Daily Maximum Load regulations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the numeric nutrient standards in Florida.

In addition, an article in the Des Moines Register indicated that “the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, believes it may be time to require fertilizer management plans of farmers, similar to the manure management plans already required of many livestock producers.” Some states, like Maryland, already have requirements in place for nutrient management.

The partnership could create potential business opportunities for agricultural retailers. Planning and implementing 4R nutrient stewardship practices can help an agricultural retailer grow their service business line. As one agricultural retailer said, “Precision agriculture is critical for profitable and sustainable agriculture.”

To help advance the voluntary nutrient stewardship approach, The Fertilizer Institute brought together the following key stakeholders, who all work closely with farmers and ranchers:

• Agricultural Retailers Association

• American Society of Agronomy – Certified Crop Advisors

• National Association of Conservation Districts

• National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

• National Association of State Conservation Agencies

• National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

This group, known collectively as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Stakeholders, believes that it is time to make additional progress in controlling the loss of nutrients by enhancing the working relationship between agricultural retailers and soil and water conservation districts. However, before this group could move forward, they determined that they needed more information on the agricultural retailer and conservation district relationship, and in late 2012, they commissioned a survey of field-level agricultural retailer and conservation district employees.

Survey Results Enlightening

A major, and expected, finding of the survey is related to communication; specifically, the two groups do not know each other very well, and they do not work together to help agricultural producers plan or implement nutrient stewardship practices.

As expected, differences exist between the two groups of survey respondents. For example, in terms of current working partnerships, the agricultural retailers identified certified crop advisors (CCA) and other agricultural retailers as their top partners. In contrast, the conservation districts identified their top two partners as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and state agricultural and environmental agencies. Both groups agreed that a major barrier to working closer together was that the groups have different objectives.

The survey found that the two groups do share common preferences. When asked what was important to their organization, each gave a very high rating to “customer loyalty” and having a “positive environmental impact.” In addition, 63 percent of the conservation district respondents wanted more nutrient stewardship information from agricultural retailers and 82 percent of the agricultural retailers wanted more information from conservation districts. Both groups agreed that the way to overcome their barriers to working closer together was to improve professional relationships, facilitate sharing of technical information, schedule regular meetings, and hold joint training sessions. In short, as one of the agricultural retailer respondents commented: “Communication is still the key.”

Groups Identify Barriers

With respect to agricultural producers, the two groups agreed that the major barriers to increased adoption of 4R nutrient stewardship practices by farmers are perceived cost, resistance to change and the farmer’s profit motive. The groups agreed that the best way to overcome these barriers was to convey information about the 4Rs through on-farm demonstrations or field days. There also was a growing sentiment from the agricultural retailers that precision agriculture could not only help reduce the fertilizer run-off, it could play a critical role in enhancing both agricultural retailer and producer profitability.

Because of the two groups’ differing objectives, agricultural retailers tend to focus on clients’ business objectives and economic considerations, and although conservation districts consider these elements, their assistance tends to focus on conservation objectives. Given that major barriers to adoption are perceived cost and operators’ profit motive, there is significant opportunity for these two groups to collaborate to better integrate economics and profit objectives into 4R education and outreach efforts.

Both groups rated the likelihood of increased federal and state regulation on the use of commercial fertilizers high, but the agricultural retailers rated the likelihood of new regulations somewhat higher than their conservation district counterparts.

Positive Environmental Impact

One of the most important findings of the survey was that agricultural retailers and conservation districts rated “having a positive environmental impact” very high. This shared interest coupled with the unique ability to help improve nutrient stewardship lays the foundation for greater collaboration between agricultural retailers and conservation districts.

The seven 4R Nutrient Stewardship Stakeholders believe that encouraging agricultural retailers and conservation districts to work closer together on nutrient stewardship will help ensure the greatest possible success of the voluntary approach to achieving public environmental objectives. The agricultural retailer and conservation district 4R nutrient stewardship partnership could help farmers make increasingly positive impacts on water quality while helping to ensure that farmers continue to make their own production decisions; that the agriculture retail industry continues to be profitable; and that the need for regulatory actions is minimized.

As one agricultural retailer commented, “Trade and business organizations need to be more proactive in promoting these concepts and ideas to the end users, and retailers.”

Earl J. Garber, president, National Association of Conservation Districts, said, “I am encouraged to see the results of our survey. We are both gatekeepers for private working lands in the areas of food production and the delivery of conservation. It is clear that both parties see the value of working together toward these mutual goals, and by doing so we can accomplish more for conservation.”

Jeff Sands, director of public policy, Agricultural Retailers Association, said, “The results of this survey are full of promise; they highlight common threads and identify opportunities for retailers and conservation districts to better serve their growers and the environment together. I look forward to seeing how the results of this survey will serve as a conduit to increasing these synergies in the future.”