For diversified Fairacres, N.M., producer Tom Simpson his independent consultant is part of his farm's management team who plays a key role on Simpson's farm.

Consultant Bill Cox of Las Cruces, N.M., has been Simpson's consultant for three decades, and Simpson can detail a long list of reasons why he relies on Cox.

Among other advantages, Cox saves Simpson time and money and allows him to farm more acres of more crops. Simpson pays Cox a per acre fee for his expertise, but there are the non-quantifiable elements of the job that cannot be measured by dollars or acres.

Cox is often the “sounding board” for Simpson, “whether he likes it or not,” laughed Simpson.

Simpson's perspective on the role of his consultant was one of the presentations during the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC) annual meeting held recently in Southern California.

NAICC came to the state where there are more than 5,000 state-licensed consultants who are an integral part of California's $28 billion agricultural machine. However independent consultants outside of California operate with less rigid regulatory frameworks and seem to be struggling to define their roles.

Consultants oftentimes do not get the proper recognition they deserve, said Cox, outgoing NAICC president.

Agricultural suppliers of chemicals, seed, nutrients and other inputs often view the farmer as the customer. Cox believes it is the consultant who is the customer and the conduit to the producer.

He cited nine fellow consultants and NAICC members at this year's annual conference who combined were responsible for recommending more than $200 million worth of products to growers in 2004.

‘Poor job defining’

“We have done a poor job of defining our role in American agriculture,” said Cox, who called on fellow NAICC members to strengthen their role by getting more consultants into NAICC.

In identifying key elements of a good consultant, farmer Simpson places confidentiality and unwavering trust high on his list of important consultant attributes. He also wants his consultant to have no financial interests in the products or services he recommends.

He values the viewpoint of his consultant because it often is a totally different perspective than he may have. “He sees thing a grower may not see,” said the New Mexico producer. Simpson expects honest and concise recommendations, preferably personally delivered.

However, he told the NAICC members not to be discouraged if a grower does not follow an independent consultant's recommendation. “I appreciate my consultant's independence,” said Simpson.

Simpson relies on Cox to provide him with the technical information on products and services because he does not have the time to keep up with new products coming on to the market. Cox says he relies on supplier representatives to keep him up to date to better serve clients like Simpson.

A consultant allows Simpson to be more consistent in his farming operation and to maximize his resources.

Rules may spread

Aerial applicator and National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Gudgel of Chowchilla, Calif., apologized for the myriad of agricultural regulations fomented in California because they likely will spread.

Gudgel said it requires close working relationships between consultants and aerial and ground applicators to comply with the many California air and water quality and pesticide regulations and remain efficient.

Along with the timely filing of notices of intent to apply pesticides, it is critical that consultants provide accurate field location maps. Also, Gudgel said consultants need to consider viscosity in recommending tank mixes. An incompatible mixture can cause application problems.

“If an applicator botches a job, both the consultant and the applicator look bad. It is important that both work together as a team for the health of the industry,” concluded Gudgel.

Plainview, Texas consultant James Todd has taken the role of independent consultant to a higher level with his firm, Agri-Search Inc.

Todd's firm is conducting its own variety trials as well as holding pre-season classes for growers on subjects like weed control, irrigation management and cotton physiology.

About economics

“What we are trying to do is educate growers and help them understand the difference between the retail and independent consultant,” said Todd. “It's all about economic thresholds and not simply hearing that it is time to treat.”

The variety trials are not just identifying the best varieties in the most northern reaches of the Cotton Belt in the Texas High Plains, but understanding the importance of stand establishment and germination rates.

“We do not have time to set fruit on second and third positions and to make a three-bale crop it has to be made with first position bolls. That is why good stand establishment is so important,” he said.

Todd's firm has been working with Norm Hopper at Texas Tech University to conduct a cool/warm vigor indexes for High Plains varieties and providing that information to growers.

Last March was Agri-Search's first “grower college.” It was on weed control, teaching growers about the basics of weed identification and herbicidal options.

Todd said the four hour meeting helped growers become aware that weed control is a total approach, looking at all the options from the Roundup system to Liberty Link and all herbicides available.

Growers in his area, said Todd, have become “Roundup addicts,” using glyphosate everywhere. “We are trying to show growers that there are other herbicides that will do a better job than Roundup on certain weeds and at the same time make the Roundup system more successful,” he said.

Conducting these colleges in the spring, said Todd, has reduced the number of in-season problems and inquiries.

The variety trials are supported by seed companies and chemical representatives and Extension personnel also help conduct the grower colleges.

The health and protection of American agriculture took on far greater importance in the wake of 9/11, said University of California area IPM advisor Pete Goodell, based at the UC Kearney Ag Center in Parlier, Calif.

Bioterrorism

Goodell is in charge of training a new network of “first detectors” against bioterrorism under the sponsorship of the Homeland Security department. NAICC members are ideal first detectors.

Goodell said the introduction of pests or diseases by terrorists could be devastating on the nation's food supply and he is coordinating the training of consultants, farmers and others in California to keep a vigilant eye on food and fiber plants, and to be aware of when and how to go about reporting anything that seems amiss. The trained first-detectors will be registered and placed in a nationwide database.

To support its network, the federal government is beefing up a network of labs to detect introduced pathogens, pests and weeds of high consequence to plant agriculture and natural ecosystems.

The information gleaned by first detectors will be fed into these NPDN labs.

Eventually, the government will be able to notify the first-detector network when intelligence points to specific bioterrorism threats on the nation's food supply. And, if a concern is detected in one part of the country, registered first-detectors elsewhere can be quickly asked to be on the lookout for the same symptoms or signs in their areas.

Volunteer first detectors attend a training session to learn which particular pest and disease agents are of high concern and how to take an accurate sample and securely submit them to Cooperative Extension and eventually to the labs for identification.

Protected Web site

The class includes exercises that let first-detectors practice finding a pest of high concern. The participants will also learn to use a secure online communication system, which involves a Web site protected with user name and password. When the registered first detector receives an e-mail notification, he or she goes to the Web site for the secret communiqué.

“Due to budget cuts, UC diagnostic capacity has been greatly diminished in the last five to 10 years. This gives us the ability to reinvest in diagnosis programs,” Goodell said. “It doesn't matter, from the program standpoint, if there is an accidental or intentional release. The invading species needs to be contained and eliminated as fast as possible.”

Consultants like NAICC members already identify pests and other elements in a field. The threat of bioterrorism heightens that responsibility.

“What this new program and network are designed to act like a neighborhood watch program, being alert to anything suspicious in the fields and report it,” said Goodell.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com