A way to choose the most profitable crop technologies in the new biological boom

The 30-year dominance of formula farming based on herbicides, GMOs, pesticides and NPK is cracking under the latest cost-price squeeze. However,  innovators who've learned their way into biological-based production are reflecting optimism. Question is: How do you choose among the astonishing and widening array of "bio" products?

December 15, 2018 — Ad-supported farm magazines like Farm Journal, Progressive Farmer and Successful Farming have traditionally been thickest with ads during winter planning months. They've shriveled to a fraction of their former page count. Advertisers know their cash-grain customers are skimping on chemicals, traited seed and equipment. 

However, the December 2018 issue of ACRES magazine, the monthly "Voice of Eco-Agriculture" is a fat 120 pages. It's packed with a bewildering array of new biologically promising products. Those advertisers — mostly small specialty firms offering microbial, biostimulants or humate type products — are growing their customer base. Some focus on organic growers, but most are gaining traction among farmers exploring their way into improving soil and crop health with biologically based technologies.

We attended a farmer meeting Thursday, Dec. 13 in Webster City, IA where a common question was: "How can I sift out the economically viable techniques and products from the bewildering array of bugs-in-a-jug claims?"

Innovation used to rely heavily on following the lead of major corporations pushing their patented seed, chemicals, fertilizers and high-tech equipment. But most of those old technologies don't lead you into 'soil health' and gradually lower costs.

Larry Eekhoff, owner of Agronomy Rx consulting firm

One way we see farmers answering that question is personal networking, farmer to farmer, talking over field result information on what worked and what did not. That's what happened Thursday when certified crop advisor Larry Eekhoff invited farmers to a pair of data-sharing sessions at Webster City. The morning group of about 35 farmers was an excellent size for direct personal question-answer talk about technologies in the field during 2018. 

This is the same principle which has energized the Practical Farmers of Iowa organization since its founding in 1985 by on-farm researchers like Dick and Sharon Thompson of Boone, Iowa. At Renewable Farming, we've long repeated Dick's frequent comment about crop innovations:  "Show me the data."

Today, Practical Farmers of Iowa confirms its basic principle for sorting out successful technologies: "We use farmer-led investigation and information sharing to help farmers practice an agriculture that benefits both the land and people. These farmers come together because they believe in nature as the model for agriculture and they are committed to moving their operations toward sustainability."

Personal, face-to-face networks of trusted friends are just as vital in the internet age as they were in the 1850s when farmers assembled at Grange halls for social and information connections. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the biggest, highest-tech innovators worldwide have the closest social connections among their massive staffs of programmers, engineers and marketers. The WSJ notes that this trend is so powerful that tech firms are transforming mega-centers in key locations across America. That follows the model of Silicon Valley in the southern San Francisco Bay region. Amazon's two new headquarters ventures landed in two of the most congested, high-rent megacities in America: New York and "Crystal City" near Washington, DC. Another mega-magnet is Austin, Texas. Corporations are encouraging, almost forcing, their innovative programmers and marketeers to network daily, on the job. Google, for example, provides free lunches as a means of accelerating staff interaction during the day.

Traditionally, many farmers have a lone-wolf attitude. They're out there because they prefer privacy, independence and freedom from other people's opinions. However, now that the formula-type co-op recommendations for NPK and weedkillers aren't showing a positive margin with $8.40 soybeans and $3.40 corn, how do you find the alternative — in time to survive financially?

We've noted that many of the microbial residue digesters, seed inoculants, humates and biostimulants are priced in the range of $7 to $15 per acre. But how many of those can you pack into one year's corn budget? And if you stack several products, which one gave you the yield and built your soil health? 

At Renewable Farming, we've conducted field trials with a wide array of nutrients and biologicals to help farmers detect promising products. Our random-rep field trials with micronutrients on soybeans which were not sprayed with glyphosate found that typically, one trace-element blend out of four showed a significant yield response.

Other research shows that beans sprayed with glyphosate usually do show a yield response to foliar zinc and manganese. Reason: Glyphosate chelates those trace elements, imposing a need for a remedial treatment.

Bottom line of this message: Look for opportunities for interaction with other growers. A few farmers have organized their own "micro-cooperatives" where they meet and share information on what worked. The most enduring pattern appears to be tapping into the organizational skills of a regional certified crop advisor, or local dealer for a firm like Agronomy Rx or AgriEnergy Resources. There are also some very helpful regional agronomists with the major seed firms, but most of them stay safely within the ecclesiastical boundaries of NPK/chemical tradition.

Example of a potential "research network." Mitch Montgomery, Pioneer field agronomist,
updates farmers at the Agronomy Rx session in Webster City, IA