You pay for an independent crop consultant's advice, but you profit from the results. That, in a nutshell, is Dixie Neubert's perspective on using crop consultants. He teamed up with consultant Phil Cochran more than 21 years ago, and Neubert says his annual investment in Cochran's services is money still well spent.

“More people, especially younger farmers, could benefit from the kinds of services a consultant offers,” says Neubert, a Vermilion County, IL, corn and soybean grower. “A good one pays for himself many times over.”

Return on investment

Results from an Iowa State University survey echo Neubert's experience. The 1994 survey of 128 Iowa farmers, all of whom worked with independent crop consultants, found that approximately 74% saw a return of between $2 and $5 for every $1 invested in their consultant's services. The survey adds: “Specifically 30% indicated they received double their money, 10% triple, 12% quadruple and 22% indicated they quintupled their investment.” You can view the complete survey results at extension.agron.iastate.edu/waterquality/IPM43/Default.htm.

A 1997 ISU extension article, “Implementing fee-based integrated crop management (ICM) services,” also makes the case for using consulting services: “With the advent of yield monitors and precision farming technologies, demands for more detailed observation, recommendations, planning and information management assistance are increasing.”

Notes Dennis Berglund, chief executive officer for Centrol Crop Consulting, “We offer farmers time savings, more return for their crop acres, and we help reduce risk on those acres.” Centrol, based in Twin Valley, MN, employs 23 agronomists who work with more than 500 crop producers in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota.

Why the reluctance?

Despite these and other concrete indications that consultants contribute a significant return on investment to their clients, only 10 to 15% of total U.S. crop acres are served by such professionals. Plus, the majority of these acres are in southern states that are dominated by input-intensive cotton.

So why don't more farmers in the Midwest use independent crop consulting services? The obvious answer is that commodity prices are low and available dollars to invest in such services are scarce. Or perhaps farmers don't see a need in their particular situation for the services a consultant provides. And, in many cases, farmers are simply reluctant to pay for something they believe they can get for free from another resource, such as their local fertilizer dealer or seed company agronomist; a free service is much more appealing than a fee for service.

Midwest farmers who work with independent consultants typically invest between $4 to $15/acre, depending upon the crop, size of field and services needed. According to the 1994 ISU survey, 90% of the farmers interviewed paid consultants an average of $3 to $5/acre for their services, and those fees are still in line today, say both Berglund and Neubert.

Unfortunately, showing a concrete return per acre on such investments is often difficult. However, some consultants are working to better document that for growers. Phil Cochran, Neubert's consultant, works throughout east-central Illinois and acknowledges that his clients who are the happiest with his help are those who have access to a detailed financial system that helps measure or calculate the payoff from working with him in dollars and cents. “Some farm management software that CPAs and agricultural accounting groups are using can help growers determine their return and even their return compared to other similar-sized farms,” he says.

Start slowly

For farmers who are interested in consulting services but are skittish about making the investment, Cochran has this advice: Select a good consultant and go slowly. “I have clients [whose operations] range in size from 200 acres to 10,000 acres,” he says. “If I'm trying to earn their business, I may only start with 100 acres, and then we go from there.”

Larry Appel agrees with Cochran's approach. Appel, an independent crop consultant based in Grant, NE, adds that farmers shouldn't expect to see dramatic improvements in their operations overnight. “It will take one to two years before you can really gauge the payoff from the consultant,” he says. “You have to give him time to prove his worth.” He adds, “Increasingly, though, with farms becoming more complex, a specialized consultant will play an important role for farmers, especially with the development of nutrient management plans in some parts of the country.”

Selection process

Both Appel and Cochran say farmers who are entertaining the idea of hiring an independent crop consultant will benefit from considering the following factors as they work through their selection process:

Education

Look for consultants who have a minimum of a four-year college degree in agronomy, entomology or a related field. Such an education provides a good knowledge base.

Certification

Along with the educational foundation, consider consultants who have attained some level of certification, such as Certified Professional Crop Consultant-Independent (CPCC-I) or Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg). Such certification lends credence to that individual's training and capabilities.

Experience

Determine whether the consultant has expertise in the services that you believe you need. Notes Cochran, “Clearly communicate expectations to the consultant on what you want to achieve. In turn, the consultant should be able to tell whether he can address those expectations effectively.”

References

Ask consultants for the names and phone numbers of several farmer clients they've worked with for a minimum of three years, and call them. With a few phone conversations, you probably will have a good idea whether the consultant you're considering is an individual with whom you can do business successfully.

Berglund also points farmers to an online resource that provides practical, useful guidelines on selecting a crop consultant: www.ag-central.com/clients/protech/crpconsu.html. Another online resource is the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, which lists consultant members by geography on its Web site at www.naicc.org.