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Making A Difference

Consultants Keep Finding Ways To Help Producers
  

By Tommy Horton
Editor

 

Cotton consultants have always played a major role in helping producers make the right management decisions on their crops.

Are their roles becoming even more important? It would seem so.

Perhaps no person in the cotton production arena deals with more pressure than the consultant. He is on the front line with the farmer every step of the way during the season. And he must have confidence in his recommendation. But, more importantly, he must have his producer’s confidence.

Although it might not seem possible, the consultant’s responsibilities seem to have expanded with new technologies, acreage shifts and other issues that are now a part of the decision-making process.

“I’d like to think we can make a difference,” says Arkansas consultant Chuck Farr, whose territory includes parts of eastern Arkansas. “We have evolved from being bug checkers to consultants making recommendations 365 days a year. The producer is leaning on us more and more.”

Farr says it is only natural that consultants would take on more responsibilities – especially with the ranks of Extension cotton specialists seeming to shrink every year because of budget cutbacks.

Consultants – A Key Group

It was probably inevitable that an increased emphasis on consultants would occur at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, Tenn. The group had its own special session that included key speakers and break-out sessions.

“We’re advising on everything from varieties to fertility to disease and every management practice that exists on a farm,” says Farr. “I think we are definitely becoming the information source for the farmer.”

The veteran Arkansas consultant says he and his colleagues aren’t overwhelmed by the volume of information they have to absorb each year. But he admits it is a challenge to digest the data, confer with other consultants and then make a sound recommendation to farmer clients.

Farr says more has changed in agriculture in the past 10 years than the previous 100 years. That might seem like a bold statement, but the introduction of Bt technology in 1996 apparently was just the starting point in the transition.

Quick, Informed Decisions

Today technology is being introduced rapidly, and decisions – by necessity – have to be made equally as fast.

Fortunately, for consultants, their strength and value to the farmer lies in their ability to network with other consultants in a region and across the Belt. They try to anticipate trends and learn how new technology has worked in a neighboring state.

“It’s not really that we have the ability to absorb information that fast,” Farr points out. “It’s more a case of consultants helping each other out. We learn what to do and what not to do. You can’t put a pricetag on this kind of information exchange.”

He also says this kind of broad network of contacts will be invaluable to help regions prepare for events such as resistant pigweed.

“We don’t have that problem like they do in the Southeast,” he adds. “But I’m glad I’ve been able to talk to consultants in that region and understand what it will be like. We have a marestail problem here in Arkansas, but the day is coming when we’ll be battling pigweed.”

Two of Farr’s friends – Dr. Fred Bourland of the University of Arkansas’ Northeast Research and Extension Center in Keiser, Ark., and Sam Booker, Syngenta regional sales representative, concur with Farr’s assessment. They have seen firsthand how important it is for there to be an efficient information exchange between consultants and farmers.

“The consultant’s advice is much broader than it was in the past,” says Bourland. “That’s why he needs to be involved in educating himself as much as possible on new issues. He needs expertise in a broader area.”

Booker, who resides in Crawfordsville, Ark., says consultants in the northeast part of his state have made an extra effort to stay updated on all kinds of production technology.

For instance, in areas like plant mapping and computers, he says the consultants have helped farmers adapt by working together to make sure “the bridge is gapped.”

“If the consultant can help ease the transition for the farmer, then he has done his job well,” says Booker. “I’ve been in this area for 11 years, and our farmers meet bi-weekly with consultants to share ideas and receive updates. Everybody knows what’s going on, and I think the farmers appreciate that.”

Common Challenges

While there are regional issues that influence how consultants help producers, a common thread still runs through every farm – regardless of its location.

Consultant Justin Chopelas of Odem, Texas, has numerous farmer clients in the Coastal Bend area of Texas, just north of Corpus Christi. For nearly 10 years, he has helped his farmers deal with a long list of issues, such as unpredictable weather, crusty soil and recent acreage shifts into grain crops. Still, the biggest challenge for Chopelas is knowing how to offer expert advice to both small and large farming operations.

“That’s just the way things are down here,” he says. “We have larger operations where you’re talking about anywhere from 12,000 acres all the way to 17,000 acres. These farmers have everything planned, and the budgets are very precise.

“Then, you have the smaller farms where the producer has a limited budget. That’s when you often run into surprises. It’s my job to relate to both of these situations.”

Chopelas agrees with his Mid-South consultant friends that the job has become more demanding. And in his part of Texas, the challenge is being able to put out as many test plots as he can. That way he can give a farmer consistent recommendations on variety selection.

Because of a Bayer CropScience seed breeding facility near his area, Chopelas has access to valuable data for his customers. By October of every year, he takes that data and incorporates it into a spreadsheet for farmers, so that they can evaluate a variety.

Lack Of Personnel

A key factor that affects the way Chopelas does his job is the shrinking influence of Extension specialists. Retirements have downsized the number of Extension personnel in the area – meaning that Chopelas is now the point man for information.

“Everybody in San Patricio County has pretty much retired,” he says. “That’s why my job as a consultant has become even more important. They look to me. The only thing that makes that tough is that I already have a pretty big geographical area to cover.”

Another factor that makes Chopelas’ job challenging is how seed decisions dominate crop management. Unless a specific seed variety performs and offers the producer a premium, it’s a losing proposition for everybody.

“It’s not just the seed varieties that we’re managing,” says Chopelas. “We’re also giving advice on timing, seed treatments, fertility and other factors related to seed.

“Sometimes I think I drive the seed companies crazy, because I’m always calling and asking questions. But that’s part of the job today.”

Finally, there is the unpredictable nature of weather in the Coastal Bend. It’s either droughts, hurricanes, tropical storms or excessive heat that enter into the equation.

“We do everything we can to stay ahead of the weather by planting earlier,” he adds. “But invariably we run into all kinds of seedling diseases in the process. So, do I think this job is challenging? That’s an understatement. We deal with everything, but it’s still a labor of love.”

Spoken like a man dedicated to his profession.

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.


Consultants’ Conference Draws Big Crowd At Beltwide

One of the major highlights of the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences was the first-ever Consultants Conference.

Because of the increasing importance of consultants in crop management decisions, the National Cotton Council and Bayer CropScience co-sponsored a general session and workshops for attendees. Topics covered a broad spectrum of economic and agronomic issues – all with the sole purpose of giving consultants more information.

Arkansas cotton breeder Dr. Fred Bourland, who attended the conference, says it is even more important for consultants to have all the necessary information needed to make sound crop recommendations.

“If there is any kind of resistance problem, chances are the consultant will be the first person to see it,” he says. “He needs to know how to control it as soon as possible. That’s why this conference was so important. Anything that can help the consultant do his job better is a win-win for all parties.”

Bourland says most consultants already have received specialty training of some kind. However, expanding that level of expertise is the real key.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “The reason consultants are here is because the farmer needed their help and couldn’t keep up with everything himself. Now the consultants are almost going through the same thing. We need to help them as much as possible. The amount of information that is out there continues to expand every year.”

 


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