More complex decisions, more chemicals with tighter scheduling requirements, and more paperwork are driving many farmers to work with crop advisers.
But at least one researcher isn’t convinced farmers need all the advice they are buying.
“I think many farmers don’t really need an agronomist,” says Alberta Agriculture agronomy research scientist, Ross McKenzie. “You need to be convinced that the advice the crop adviser gives you is better than the sources you’re using now, that being, crop clubs, field days, researchers, industry reps, ag retailers, and others.
“The first question is to ask yourself whether you’re happy with your crop management knowledge and most of the decisions you make. Are you comfortable with crop yields relative to inputs? If your answers are positive, you probably won’t gain much from hiring an agronomist.”
On the other hand, if you think you could improve your crop management skills, stage crops and weed control better, or you don’t have enough time to scout your fields as often as you’d like, agronomy services may be a good investment.
“Put as much thought and research into hiring an agronomist as you would to a major machinery purchase,” says McKenzie. “Good, timely advice could mean significant improvements in crop yields, the profitability of your farm and your peace of mind. But, if they’re not a good fit for you, the effect could be the opposite.”
McKenzie advises farmers to think ahead about what services they want from an agronomist, whether they want them year round or seasonally, or only when there is a problem.
When interviewing potential crop advisers, McKenzie recommends asking about the philosophy behind their cropping recommendations, as well as their education, experience and whether they’d be a good member of your team.
For example, one agronomist might aim for high yields, while another’s goal might be to ensure every dollar invested in inputs has a positive return.
Ask around about agronomists working in your area, and tell people you want their honest opinion, says McKenzie. Once you’ve narrowed your list to three or four candidates, invite them for an interview. Ask for a resume and references and, says McKenzie, if you don’t get those or an interview, cross that person off your list. Along with inquiring about service levels and fees, ask about the information sources and resources they turn to when faced with a new issue.
McKenzie suggests using some sort of scoring system to review the qualifications and style of each person you interview. Feel free to take notes and use lists during your discussions because you don’t want to miss important questions or forget who said what. Those should include what university or college they attended and their major or area of specialization. If the person didn’t train in Western Canada, you need to assess whether they have a solid understanding of Prairie farming, particularly soils and crops in your area as well as your practices, whether that’s irrigation, manure use, direct seeding or working with GPS systems.
McKenzie also recommends asking about specifics: Will field scouting be done by summer staff or the professional? By quad or on foot? How many acres and fields does each person cover? How will they communicate their findings to you?
Check what is included in their fees – sampling and lab fees may not be included or be covered only for some labs. Look for hidden costs and ask for an estimate of total per-year billings. Also ask whether billings are split into before and after the season or annually.
If you decide to work with a crop adviser, McKenzie recommends having a contract that spells out each party’s role and such things as field sanitation, land access, contract termination and dispute resolution, as well as fees and services.
McKenzie has developed a fact sheet on hiring an agronomist, available on the Alberta Agriculture website. It includes checklists for each step in the process.
Whether you farm with or without the help of a crop adviser, McKenzie has one consistent piece of advice.
“When you try a new thing, do it on a small area, a strip or two of the new thing beside your current practice,” he says.
“If you don’t compare them side by side, you’ll never know whether the new way of doing things is worthwhile.”
cropmanagement knowledgeandmost ofthedecisions youmake.”
– ROSS MCKENZIE