The Farm – Supplier Partnership

by Alberto Diaz

The problem is speed of adoption, and it is a big problem.

The speed of technological advancements in agriculture is accelerating. But these new materials and technologies are becoming available at a much faster speed than the industry can reasonably absorb, which creates one complicated problem. Farmers and investors are constantly presented with opportunities and innovation, yet agriculture, unlike electronic or automotive, does not lend itself to fast adoption by consumers. Farmers must be incredibly careful when adopting new technologies because a mistake can be very costly. Crop damage can occur fast, and recovery may not be possible.

Years ago, I worked for a company that introduced a nitrogen fertilizer derived from hydrolyzed soy. It was fully soluble, immediately available, incredibly low salt index, and organically certified with no disagreeable odor. It also was over twenty times more expensive per unit of N than other available organic certified fertilizers. One important client called me with a concern that his organic certified wheat was showing severe N deficiency, even though he was applying the correct amount of fertilizer through drip. Here is the issue:

As far as recommended units of N, he was applying a correct dosage. His fertilizer was also certified organic and low cost. Technically and financially, he was doing his job correctly. Yet the N deficiency persisted. In my opinion, his problem had to do with N mineralization: the process to transform some forms of organic nitrogen into “plant usable forms” (in quotes because this is important to my point). This was a winter crop in AZ, and although temperatures are mild when compared to other growing regions, they were low enough to slow down biological decomposition of the organic fertilizer. Soil’s biologicals were too slow to meet crop demands.

I suggested he try my employer’s new N fertilizer for a couple of weeks in a limited area to see if it would address the N deficiency. Because at that time, the soy hydrolysate fertilizer was very new to the industry, I had no equivalent references to use as guideline for calculating the dosage. I made it very clear to the grower that my recommendation was strictly a dollar-for-dollar trade, not a unit for unit. While his budget would not suffer, his N calculation would. My employer authorized some free trial material, and the client applied the material to his wheat. A few weeks later we got a call from the client, informing me the N deficiency appeared to be under control and placing an order for the entire acreage.

The point I would like to make here is that traditionally we have trialed materials through a slow but very thorough process performed by land-grant universities and independent research organizations before offering to market. This can literally take years. While no one disputes the trustworthiness of the claims obtained, the marketability of new materials and their availability to farmers can be severely impacted.

This is where the The Farm – Supplier Partnership can have important benefits for both parties. New technologies should be carefully evaluated before implementation. To minimize the time and risk, trustworthy demonstrations should be conducted on-farm (note I wrote “demonstration,” not “trial”). Growers and suppliers must agree to take a serious look at the new material and jointly evaluate the fit. Suppliers must be ready demonstrate the fit before trying to sell, and growers should not only embrace these demonstrations, but be ready to implement (buy) in relative short order. Both parties have risks but without this cooperation, new technologies are destined to become obsolete before formal research can confirm the claims.

To this day my former client still uses soy protein hydrolysate N fertilizer on his organic and conventional crops, and I am still not aware of any formal research that allows me to calculate units of N between different organic sources. We may lack the usual tools to issue well calculated recommendations, but for this grower, starting with that first demo on N deficient winter wheat, his know-how trumps convention, and his bottom line has been positively impacted because years ago both grower and supplier agreed to take a serious look.