Fueled by demand for precision ag services, high-value, high-cost commodity crops and an ever expanding array of government regulations and incentivized programs, crop consultants in the Midwest are holding their own and growing. Talk to Orvin Bontrager, Aurora, Neb., starting his 33rd year; Randy Darr, Shipman, Ill., with 24 years under his consulting belt; or Todd Schaumberg, Wrightstown, Wis., with only four years in the business, and the story is the same. Opportunity is there for those who want it.
"I wouldn't be in the business if I didn't think the future was bright," said Bontrager. He is one of more than 80 Servi-Tech Inc. crop consultants operating in four states and also serves as president of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants. "I know growers are looking for good independent advice. They are looking at herbicide-resistant weeds, new insect pests that genetically modified crops don't control and potential beneficial results with foliar fungicide use. Problems haven't gone away because of GMO crops. If anything, the very high dollar decisions on seed and other inputs are increasing interest in consultant services."
"I think the potential for crop consultants is still wide open, as much as when I started," said Darr, owner of Soil-Right Consulting Services Inc. "I look at acres I drive by on my way to a client, and I know the potential is there; you just have to convince the farmer that what you do has value. When I started just out of college in 1986, crop consulting was fairly new in Illinois, and you had to explain what you were. It's not that bad today."
As a young consultant trying to grow business in the midst of a dairy recession in an area known for its dairy herds, Schaumberg could be forgiven if he was pessimistic. Just the opposite is true. "During the downtime, we saw lots of opportunity to help clients cut the corners they could cut without hurting themselves for the long term," he said. "Our clients need help with today's volatile markets, keeping their soils in shape and getting the highest possible yields."
Schaumberg grew up seeing the benefits of working with a crop consultant. His father was a client of Jeff Polenske, Polenske Agronomic Consulting. Schaumberg started working with the firm while in high school, continued through college and now is affiliated with the firm, sharing equipment and information. Although nutrient management planning is the largest business segment for the firm, applications of precision technology is a major growth area and fuels Schaumberg's optimism.
"We just purchased a new Veris EC mapper," he said. "It will allow us to do more zone sampling and treat accordingly. Providing our farmers with the technology they need is where I see opportunity. We can help them be more comfortable with what they are doing and be better stewards of their environment."
Darr agreed that market volatility, new technologies and environmental regulations and concerns all play important roles in solidifying his relationship with his clients. "The wide swings in input and output prices makes it almost imperative to have consultants today," he said.
"Those who've been with us tell us they wouldn't farm without us."
Making Agronomics Economical
Darr credited the willingness of crop consultants in general to step in and become experts in technology for enhancing client satisfaction.
However, he is quick to point out that technologies are just tools. If you don't have a reason to use them, they have no value. To that end, he is gearing up to better identify the value in using technologies and the services he offers by completing a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree.
"Although agronomy is still the backbone of what I do, I am evolving more into resource management," said Darr. "My goal is to make sure that what we recommend is the right decision economically as well as agronomically. I envision being able to better identify where things are with the crop farming business, what the options are and what their ramifications are."
Through his MBA studies, Darr is getting a better appreciation for overall farm business, whether regarding return on investment or return on assets. It not only helps him better project where the client wants to go, but also gives him a better understanding of outside forces that will affect the farm business. His studies are also helping him with his own business.
"After I wrote a paper on financial ratios, I realized I had enough equity to afford borrowing a little more for operating capital than I had in the past," he said. "I also realized I wasn't getting clients to pay me as soon as they could. I eliminated a cash flow problem and started paying back the loan sooner."
Partnering With Ag Retailers
Another way his business is evolving is in his relationships with full-service ag retailers who serve his clients. Darr noted that when he started, many retailers looked at him less than favorably. That has changed, and today they work together on many issues and in some cases partner on projects.
"I work with several retailers to provide their customers technology services the retailer doesn't want to offer," he said. "The retailer gives us the data, and I review and write it up."
In fact, Darr credited full-service ag retailers with helping him sell the value of many of the crop consulting services he offers. He noted that as retailers began establishing their own crop consulting services, it reinforced the value of consulting services in the minds of many growers.
Though Servi-Tech was started by and is owned by farmer-owned, crop input supply cooperatives, Bontrager makes recommendations to clients independent of the local retailer. As a result, he acknowledged that relations between consultants and even Servi-Tech affiliated co-op management can be less than ideal.
"Some managers are very receptive to our recommendations to their customers; others may not agree," he said. "I know it is always best for the grower when the independent crop consultant and the local retailer get along and exchange information and ideas. When tensions arise, it makes it confusing for growers."
Communication is the answer, suggested Bontrager. He puts a high priority on sitting down with a retailer to discuss services being provided and especially any changes recommended. Getting along can be as simple as recommending one brand over another when either will do the job.
"Before I make a recommendation, I find out what the retailer is handling," said Bontrager. "There's no sense in making it difficult for the retailer to service his grower. That makes it easier for the grower to see we are working together."
Of course, doing right by the grower should be the goal of every crop consultant, independent or retailer employed. However, simply doing right isn't enough. Communicating what has been achieved is necessary for the relationship with the grower to continue and get stronger, suggested Bontrager.
"As a consultant, you make decisions every week of the summer, and a single decision may make the client as much or save them as much money as your service cost for the whole year," he said. "We need to point that out. It is part of a continuous process of communicating."
Darr agreed and emphasized that communicating value received is the key to growth in any business, but especially for crop consultants.
"We love the dirt and plants and tractors, but we need to understand and be able to explain how what we are doing will help the client financially," said Darr. "I drive by a lot of ground that I don't work with. The potential is there for consulting, but you have to convince the farmer that what you offer has a value."