Farmers need to question claims

A lot of products make a lot of different promises, but when it comes to how research is analyzed, farmers need to look for results that are statistically significant

Man presenting with a microphone.

Farmers need to ask more questions and demand better answers when confronted with new products promising yield gains based on sketchy data, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development official says.

Terry Buss, a farm production adviser, told an Ag Days seminar he is getting more calls from farmers about the claims made by different product developers — calls that should be directed to the product developers themselves.

The increased interest is in part due to an influx of new products, particularly soil fertility products, soil conditioning agents as well as fungicides.

“There’s a lot less regulation in the product market now, there’s been federal changes in regulations, and I’ve really seen an explosion,” Buss said. “And I’m not there to be the policeman and say yay or nay on anything, but I think people can arm themselves with questions that will allow them to figure out whether they think they’re being sold something that is actually real, and going to work for them.”

Companies may be providing a lot of tables and graphs, but they aren’t always giving producers the information farmers need to make an informed decision, Buss said.

“I think we’re at a point in the industry where we’re going to see people becoming more and more aware of the fact that they have the ability and the right or the responsibility to actually ask questions when a graph gets slapped up there. Things like — How was it analyzed? How was it done?” Buss said.

People need to take an especially close look at a seemingly growing category of products promising yield increases of less than 10 per cent for $10 or less an acre.

From the Grainews website: Planning ahead for fertility

“I’ve had people say to me, well it’s cheap, so I’ll take a spin of the wheel. I’m saying, ask the right questions,” Buss said. “Do you have $5,000 to throw away? I know I don’t.”

And while phrases like “positive yield response” may sound upbeat, they don’t hold any actual meaning — even if they are being used more often.

“There’s not a standard definition to it, I don’t know what it means…

Is it statistically significant? Or is it greater than zero?” asked the adviser. “If I’m going to accept that there is a difference between one bar and another on a graph — and it’s a real difference — for me that means that it was done in such a way that we can do statistics and that I’ll be able to know the level of confidence the person has in what they’ve done, that’s the way that research works.”

But even as more products and claims enter the marketplace, Buss believes the kind of information provided should be driven by farmer demands, not government regulation.

“I think that we’re at an interesting time in the industry… we’re getting to that point now where producers can ask these questions and can understand these concepts quite readily. I have clients who have kids that are coming into the business who have gone through a diploma or degree program, who understand this stuff, and are puzzled when they don’t see the things they feel need to be presented when it comes to data,” he said. “I think it’s time for (producers) to raise that bar, and say OK, now we want a certain kind of research and we want a certain level of quality.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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