Ag Retailers and Conservation: Can They Work Together?

Agronomist in soybean fields

Ag Retailers and Conservation: Can They Work Together?

Samantha Schmidgall, the Agronomy Marketing Manager with Ag View FS in Walnut, IL, is driven by the cooperative foundation of her agricultural retail company. 

“If we're not doing what our farmers and our farmer-based board want us to do, we're not checking the box of doing the right thing that day,” she said.

In recent years, her farmer community has encouraged the company to embrace sustainable ag technologies and practices.

“We might have one or two growers that suggest, you know, hey, can you look at this? Can you see if this is cost effective for us? And when we find those things, we're implementing them across our company,” she explained.

Over time, the addition of these conservation practices has evolved into a core philosophy of how they run their business.

“Trying to be the leader in conservation is something that we truly take pride in and our customer owners do as well,” Schmidgall said.

Agricultural retailers have a significant impact on the types of agronomic practices farmers adopt in the communities they serve. 

Farmers rely on these companies for everything from seeds and inputs to essential agronomic advice. That role of trusted adviser gives retailers influence with the farmers they work with.

Trust In Food, in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund, recently published a report called “Growing for the future: Business lessons from ag retail’s conservation leaders”.

The report notes, “More so than almost any other stakeholder, ag retailers are positioned to play an influential role in the continuous improvement of sustainability across the agricultural value chain.”

But many retailers prefer conventional growing over sustainable ag.

“Retailers can be a roadblock to adopting sustainable ag practices if they’re not into conservation,” said Field Work co-host Mitchell Hora, a farmer in Iowa.

That’s why Hora, along with fellow farmer and co-host Zach Johnson, wanted to hear from folks on the retail side who have made conservation a top priority.

Malcolm Stambaugh works with Schmidgall at Ag View FS as a Crop Specialist. In 2012, he began working with his farmers to implement 4R nutrient management. 

4R Nutrient Stewardship is an efficient framework for applying nutrients that emphasizes using the right fertilizer source, the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. 

Since 2012, Stambaugh has helped 16 growers participate in the 4R program, and was recognized as one of the 4R advocates of the year in 2019.

Along with their 4R work, Ag View FS encourages all their salesmen to use the ‘maximum return rate on nitrogen,’ or MRTN, tool to calculate the most profitable rate of nitrogen application for each grower.

“Just to make sure that we're doing the right thing economically and we're doing the right thing agronomically,” Schmidgall explained. “It doesn't do any good for anyone to put on an excess of nitrogen that's not getting used in the right way.”

Schmidgall has seen that as more growers adopt conservation nitrogen application techniques, it sparks interest in the larger community.

“When people in the area see that we have more of these enduring farmer 4R advocates… there's a lot of guys that are asking, ‘How do I do that? How do I be a part of that?” she said.

That initial interest in conservation opens the door for Ag View FS to introduce those growers to a whole set of sustainable practices that could benefit their operation.

“It's not only fertilizer, it's not only doing the 4R practices, but it's soil sampling on a grid. It's VRT (variable rate technology) application of lime, phosphates and potassium. It's no applications on frozen ground. It's utilizing cover crops,” she said.

Schmidgall and Stambaugh see that it’s going to take years to refine the best uses of newly developing conservation techniques. Right now, they’re collecting data on the best uses of these techniques. That information will guide their company over the coming decade.

“So right now we're doing the legwork, doing the trials to figure out what's going to work, what isn't working,” Schmidgall said. “And if you're not working with an ag retailer who's interested in doing those trials and working with those products, there's a potential for you to get left behind.”