According to a new case study, consulting with a local ag retailer on cover crops, precision technology and soil health can benefit conservation and improve the bottom line for farmers.
The case study was presented by Gary Farrell, president and CEO of Ag Enterprise Supply, based in Cheney, Wash., and Hunter Carpenter, director of public policy for the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Winter Policy Conference on Jan. 31 in Washington, D.C.
The case study is one of the outcomes from a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) signed in December 2016 by the ARA, CropLife America, The Fertilizer Institute and several other agricultural associations. The goal of the MOU is to expand adoption of conservation and sustainability best practices.
The MOU was the brainchild of Farrell who floated the idea to increase collaboration between the federal agency tasked with improving conservation planning efforts and the farmers who implement them. It was an outgrowth of successful efforts in the 2014 farm bill to allow ag retailers to be reimbursed as technical service providers.
Farrell has 42 years of experience in ag retail. As the co-chair of the Washington State Soil Health Committee, a member of the Soil Health Institute’s public policy committee and a former chairman of the ARA’s board of directors, he knows how important America’s farm suppliers are in improving nutrient management and efficiency.
Ag Enterprise Supply began working in earnest with its local NRCS offices on new and emerging partnership ideas for cover crops four years ago.
Nutrient management has been a focal point for the Cheney-based company for more than 30 years. Most recently, Ag Enterprise Supply has zeroed in on grid sampling and variable-rate applications. By fine-
tuning fertility recommendations for alternate crops and soil testing preplant and postharvest soils, the company has worked diligently to decrease nutrient loss and improve efficiency.
Washington state’s unique climate and soil allow Ag Enterprise Supply to adjust variable rates of nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur; directly seed cover crops rather than use conventional seeding methods; and make rotation changes to improve soil conditions throughout its growing region in a relatively short amount of time.
The focus on precision agriculture and ability to use new ideas and methods make a strong case for agricultural retailers’ impact to improve soil health and maximize nutrient efficiency for farmers.
Problems and Opportunities
The biggest challenge has been changing the collective mindsets of farmers in the area. Whether their trepidation is practice-based, economics-based or simply misinformation, it is difficult to convince people to change the way things have always been done.
One local perception has been there is not enough moisture in the area to support the planting of cover crops even though that has been proven to be false. Adoption of new methods are always tough, but a lot has been learned during the past three years.
Farmers have been successfully challenged to determine which cover crops work best locally and make the economics work for them. Ag Enterprise Supply initially discovered that though there is a lot of information on soil health and cover crops, it was not collected in one location for the business’ customers to access. It also fought the hard sale of making the economics work for growers since the return on investment for cover crops that farmers have never planted is difficult to demonstrate.
It took education and investments of time and money to show farmers that the return on investment is not only there in dollars and cents but also in long-term soil health measurements.
The project goals were threefold. The initial goal was to work with grower-customers who have adopted yield monitoring technology to also determine realistic yield goals within the field zone. Ag Enterprise Supply also aimed to determine proper fertility rates based on these goals, and it took into account varying efficiencies due to organic matter, cation exchange capacity and pH levels. Ultimately, it challenged customers to determine whether cover crops and alternative crops (flax, sunflowers and canola) affected health, fertility requirements and goals.
Measures of Success
This project has been encouraged by the number of proposals and existing project reports that the Washington State Soil Health Committee has attained. When the Washington State Soil Health Committee put out its first request for proposals for cover crops and soil health projects, it received six proposals. During the second year, the committee received 18 proposals, and last year, the committee received 28. Of these proposals received, the committee was able to fund eight projects based on a three-year life cycle.
Success has also been realized by the number of growers who are actively trying to find ways to change their management systems to include cover crops and ultimately improve soil health.
Use technology to become efficient and cost-effective. By saving money on nitrogen fertilizers, farmers can invest in micronutrients they had not previously been able to afford. This will increase productivity and crop quality and will lead to increased environmental benefits and financial gains for the farmers.
Farmers need to look at how they can adapt soil health practices into their current management systems and production practices.
For example, in dry areas, Farrell found that canola works well as a cover crop because it is also a cash crop; therefore, it can improve both soil health and farmers’ economic bottom lines.
NRCS and agricultural retailers walk a parallel path with the customer in the middle. To better serve their joint customers, they need to interact more and better utilize each other’s resources. Find ways to open lines of communication so both parties can be aware of what the other is doing.
Another issue that needs to be resolved is to streamline a way for certified crop advisers to become certified as technical service providers.