Choosing the right crop consultant is one of the most important decisions a farmer faces. No one looks forward to needing the services and help consultants provide, but like knowing a good doctor, many farmers rest easier when they have an experienced and professional consultant working to overcome their problems.
Crop consultants come in many varieties and offer a wide range of services, skills and experience. Some work as individuals or specialize in one or two crops. Other consultants work out of larger firms, advising on a number of crops. Some consultants focus exclusively on pest management and IPM, while others include fertility analysis and recommendations, seed and variety selections, irrigation management, and GIS in their services.
One reason more and more farmers and agribusinesses are seeking out consultants is the need to cost-effectively manage and integrate ever-more complex packages of technology. Consultants also can play key roles in managing today’s biotechnology advances, e.g., B.t. plants and their complex and controversial resistance management strategies.
GIS/GPS technologies and regulatory requirements require special skills as do biointensive IPM systems. Accordingly, the demand for crop consultants, and diversity of services offered is bound to continue growing. How should farmers choose crop consultants? How can the cost of services be evaluated and compared? What should clients expect in terms of their consultant’s accessibility? Do consultants owe their clients immediate responses twenty-four hours a day, year-round?
There are four important areas to assess the strengths and weaknesses of consultants:
- Knowledge and competence
- Proven track record, experience in your area with your crop
Knowledge and Competence:
In a sense, how knowledgeable and competent your consultant should be depends on what problems you face and what assistance you are hoping to get. If the consultant is to sample field soil, obtain analyses, and write fertility recommendations for projected yields, a specific competency is required. If the recommendations of the consultant are going to be acted on without further oversight or assessment, you need to be convinced the consultant knows what he/she is doing or you may have an unpleasant surprise.
If your consultant is to provide a biointensive scouting service, then familiarity is required with pests, diseases, weeds, predators, parasites, thresholds, populations, weed hosts, and refugia for beneficials for the appropriate crops, including how to track all their complex interactions. This type of service requires a different set of skills and a different level of understanding interactions in the field and how to shape them. If your crop consultant is to make management and control recommendations based on the populations of beneficials, pathogens, and pests in the field, this requires yet another level of training and understanding. Due to the interactions of the populations both on a client’s farm and on neighboring farms, it’s often desirable to have access to a larger body of information for interpreting observations, predicting likely trends in pest pressure and beneficial populations when making control decisions. Because of the scope of their work and the experience they draw upon in their staff, larger consulting firms tend to have an advantage in accessing the full range of information needed to assure success under a wide range of circumstances.
Credentialed crop consultants are a relatively recent development. Consultants now have the opportunity to become certified. Those that do can provide credentials to the client/farmer which show that a certain level of professional competence has been demonstrated. Standards include education, competency, and ethics. The National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants provides a Certified Professional Crop Consultant (CPCC) service for certification which is officially recognized in most states and by EPA, especially for the purpose of implementing the crop advisor exemption for WPS. The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) administers the Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) program, nationally and at the state level. The Entomological Society of America designates board certified entomologists, recognizing a high level of entomological competency. Both the American Phytopathological Society and the American Society of Horticultural Science have cooperative arrangements with ASA to credential breadth of knowledge. No longer does a grower need to rely only on an interview or word of mouth. The credentialing groups can help you, the grower, by confirming a certain level of knowledge and competency. Many professional societies are actively exploring even more rigorous and specific certification categories, as well as the need to impose new continuing education requirements.
In making field observations and decisions, a crop consultant often finds himself or herself in perplexing situations. Both the farm manager and the owner have certain sets of expectations. The owner has a certain set of expectations; and, at times, these don’t agree. Sometimes telling a grower that what he/she is doing is wrong, or perhaps even disastrous, can be difficult. You know that’s not what he/she wants to hear. The correct identification of an insect or weed is critical. If uncertain, a consultant should say so, then get the identification right before moving ahead, so that the appropriate control response can be made. Many decisions a consultant and grower need to make are not clear-cut. Likewise, it is often hard to determine exactly why a certain population takes off unexpectedly — maybe causing serious losses or just forcing the grower to spend an extra $100 per acre in control costs. Consultants must be both honest and candid in providing possible explanations, which will often include some failure on the consultant’s part to either notice the population growth or anticipate the need for changes in control strategies.
Growers deserve to receive the best and most complete information a consultant has to offer, and this clearly includes explaining our areas of uncertainty and the many times where essential information is not available or applicable. Honesty in many of these examples dovetails into simply operating ethically. All of the certifying groups require adherence to a written code of ethics.
This information can be gathered from other local clients and the local Extension personnel with which the consultant may have worked or interacted over the years. When talking with your grower or Extension neighbors at the coffee shop or in their offices, some questions to ask would include finding out how your prospective consultant has handled issues and decisions affecting cash costs, and how yields and quality compare to neighboring operations. Ask about the products that are being recommended: Are they the cheapest? Are they the latest technology? Are they more toward the reduced-risk and environmentally benign type? Does the crop consultant show up regularly and on time? Does the consultant respond favorably with full diligence to impromptu difficulties? When the service contract calls for two visits per week, does that always happen? Do you see your consultant at Extension meetings? Does the consultant attend other types of continuing education seminars to keep up with new pests, new predators and their characteristics? A number of avenues are available for growers to obtain good information on a consultant’s track record.
The pivotal point and key to success is that the crop consultant must correctly assess the events shaping pest-beneficial-crop dynamics in the field. To correctly make these population evaluations and predictions requires the consultant to examine routinely and regularly a representative sample of plants within a field. A crop consultant must correctly sample a field if the grower is to have the information needed to make the correct management decision. The number of samples taken, methods used, and frequency of sampling will vary from field to field, and year to year. Consultants need to know how to recognize success so that growers can cut back on sprays and expenditures; they also must keep growers apprised of any localized flare-up in populations within the field that may have been missed or escaped a control measure, for whatever reason: wind, clogged nozzles, etc. The consultant’s sampling method must provide a quick and reliable basis to determine whether a population flare-up in part of a field is a sign of more trouble coming, or just a problem with the last application. Obviously, consultants must understand the causes of problems before growers can take effective, corrective actions. The essence of a crop consultant correctly sampling the crop is that a grower will receive no surprises and will know how to respond when conditions change. With the pest control products available today, growers working with good crop consultants should rarely lose any yield due to failure to understand pest-crop dynamics in the field. But for this to remain the case, all of us in agriculture must continue to develop more sophisticated, prevention-based pest management systems. We need to preserve the efficacy of all tools, and minimize the risk of safety problems and resistance, by integrating as many as possible into IPM systems that are as dynamic as conditions in the field warrant.