As a boy, Gary Farrell remembers his grandfather carrying a small spade wherever he went around his cattle ranch, scooping up some soil and smelling it. Stewardship of the land has never left Farrell’s focus.
Today, he is president of Ag Enterprise Supply in Cheney, Wash., and he is using a different set of tools to help farmers remain profitable and sustainable.
Farrell has more than four decades of experience in the industry and is a past president of the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) as well as a current co-chair of the Washington State Soil Health Committee, and a committee member of the Soil Health Institute.
For the past four years, Farrell has been working to promote the benefits retailers bring in helping farmers adopt conservation practices, while also spotlighting how the retail industry can partner with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to take full advantage of the conservation programs they offer. His work resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the USDA-NRCS, ARA, CropLife America, The Fertilizer Institute and others.
“As a trusted resource, ag retailers are in a prime position to advise farmers on implementing conservation methods and tactics that improve nutrient stewardship, sustainability and profitability,” says Daren Coppock, president and CEO of ARA.
A product of that MOU has been a case study that’s proven to be a win-win-win for retailers, farmers and the NRCS. “The real goal here is to open up communication between our industry and the NRCS,” Farrell explains. “There is a lot of opportunity for our industry and our customers.”
Farrell says the biggest result from having more communication with NRCS officers is the consistency it brings to helping a farmer implement conservation practices while also taking advantage of the applicable programs available from NRCS.
“We’ve been focusing on nutrient management for 30 years as we started to implement 4R management, variable-rate application and zone management,” Farrell says. “It’s no longer one size fits most—today’s agronomic practices and economics demand that we are really precise. Each farmer and each field have a specific need.”
It’s the detailed knowledge retail partners have with customers that they bring to the table when working with NRCS and the farmer to discuss a conservation program.
“When talking about a conservation program, one of the first questions we ask a farmer is what are they doing—so we have a baseline,” explains Washington state agronomist Tracy Hanger. “Retailers are such a valuable part of the conversation because they know field histories and have a lot of knowledge about the farmer’s practices to share.”
Hanger references many of the farmer meetings where having the retailer be part of the conversation expedited the entire process. She also references the industry perspective on profitability in helping to explore all the options.
“And often, each of us can think of an alternative the other may not have thought of, because we are approaching the project from different perspectives,” she says.
Regarding nutrient management, Farrell says factoring in more conservation practices and programs has changed his input business for
“Maybe we aren’t putting on as much nitrogen, but we are helping the farmer spend their input dollar more effectively and efficiently,” he says. “And we have gained sales with our nutrient plants because farmers realize how to treat their fields accordingly, get more return on the investment, and are buying more micronutrients.”
Farrell explains his customer base has always slanted toward being more progressive, but with the new perspective applied to nutrient management, they are more confident to try something new, particularly seeing how it will pay off in the long run.
Farrell says the lessons learned in nutrient management convey directly into understanding soil health. He reports most of his customers have transitioned to no-till. And state-wide 60% of farmers in Washington are practicing no-till, according to Roylene Rides at the Door, the state conservationist.
“More and more producers like the idea of having a conservation plan, because they can see economic benefits,” Rides At The Door says. An example is the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Smart Farm program, which gives farmers a new marketing tool for the crops they are growing.
With the varied geographies in Washington and Farrell’s trade area, he says crop rotation is dictated by Mother Nature.
“Particularly in our low rainfall areas, which get 10" to 12" of annual rainfall, we’ve tried to use cover crops,” he says. “And in those areas grazing crops have been the most successful—to where farmers are looking at bringing cattle back to the farm.”
When the Washington State Soil Health Committee put out its first request for projects, it received six proposals. But the next year resulted in 18, and the following year 28. So far eight projects have been funded for three-year cycles.
With concepts such as soil health that have a longer time frame for return on investment, Rides at the Door says the retailer partnership is even more important to helping the agency achieve its goals.
“Retailers can help us educate producers on sound conservation practices. We are facing an interesting dynamic where the farm bill is five times bigger than before, yet our agency’s staff is capped at 10,300 employees, which is only 1,500 more employees than what we started with in 1934,” she says.
That gap might bring the biggest financial opportunity for retailers to help them diversify their business in a new way—becoming a technical service provider (TSP).
“As a TSP, you can focus on whatever area you are most skilled in—water management, nutrient management etc,” Rides at the Door explains. “And the real asset retailers bring is they are often very familiar with the latest technologies in their focus area.”
A TSP is the person who helps plan and execute on a project as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Rides at the Door explains in Washington they’ve had success in implementing total resource management systems with good results. For example, working together with partners such as Palouse Rock Conservation District and Washington State Commission to not only to install large riparian buffers as well as getting the farmer state-funded compensation for the forgone income in doing so.
“It’s proving beneficial to focus on how we can work together,” Farrell says. “There’s a lot of opportunity—and no reason to be afraid of things we don’t know. NRCS has some fabulous programs that help our customers, and we do the work that keeps them in compliance with those programs.”
Rides at the Door also cites the newer Regional Conservation Partner Program (RCPP) as an opportunity, of which 52% of the state is covered.
“Through that program, we can target dollars for a watershed, so that if there’s a policy preventing something from happening, a farmer could get a waiver,” she explains.
Water management also provides an example of how implementing new technologies is giving new insights into conservation.
“We’ve monitored water use for many years, but with new technologies, there is so much more opportunity to learn,” she says. “For example, we’ve started to install moisture sensors in dryland production, which has never been a focus before. This will help us understand how the water is moving through the soil and think of new production methods we haven’t thought of before to maximize the resource we have.”
Farrell says it has been frustrating to get the certification process to become a TSP streamlined and more appealing for retailers.
“We need to continue to work to find an easier way for retailers to become a TSP and be reimbursed in the services to our customers when they are involved in conservation projects,” he says.
Farrell’s experience of working on this project so far has given him the impression that there is no better time than now to engage. The MOU is just the beginning of longer-term relationships between NRCS, ARA and the other signatories.
“You have to lead, follow, or get out of the way,” he says. “I choose to lead to find a way to make things work. If we can lead by example for the farm community and our customers, and we’ve seen how in these efforts, when we do the best thing for our customers, it ends up taking care of us and our business as well.”
He says a few months ago, at a meeting in Washington D.C., he was the only person at the table from the retail industry. While he wishes more of the industry was already part of these conversations, he’s grateful to help advocate for his peers. He says ag retail is playing an important role in helping farmers adopt conservation, and his state’s officials agree.
“In working together, we can change the perception of agriculture,” Rides At The Door says. “Farmers and the industry are working to help us have clean water, clean air and manage nutrients. And in working together we can better tell our stories. As we see cities grow, it’s going to become critical that the land we keep in agriculture will be in conservation.”
With the same customer base and a parallel mission to serve that customer, these strides have benefited all who are involved.
“We need to continue to work to expand our lines of communication with agencies such as NRCS,” Farrell says. “It’ll only give us a better understanding of what we are doing and that we are often doing it for the same reason—to benefit the farmer customers we serve. Retailers have the guns; the government has the ammunition.”