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6 Steps Ag Retailers Can Take to Make Sustainability Successful

Progressive farmers and ag retailers are embracing sustainability and regenerative ag practices to increase their profit potential and position themselves for the future of agriculture. 

With a thoughtful approach, integrating sustainable consulting services into your ag retail business offers a win-win-win opportunity for you, your customers and the environment. Follow these tips to build a solid foundation and showcase your conservation leadership.


Do the legwork

Changing production practices can seem overwhelming to farmers accustomed to doing things a certain way. You may be met with skepticism when the sustainability conversation comes up. 

To overcome challenges, you’ll need the data, products and tools to show that you’re a leader in conservation efforts. That means you may have to dedicate capital to run field trials with your customers or invest in software technology that can help you recommend more sustainable practices for your customers. You’ll need to dedicate time and labor resources for education and training opportunities to stay on top of industry trends. 

Building relationships with key stakeholders will also be critical to successfully implementing sustainability into your business model. Finally, you’ll need to add a layer of customer segmentation to identify what customers might benefit from adopting more sustainable production practices.


Acknowledge your influence

As a trusted advisor, your farmers turn to you for the latest data, research and insights related to sustainability decisions on their farms. A report by Trust In Food goes as far as to say, 

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.” 

Why do ag retailers like you play such a dominant role in sustainability decisions? 

One reason is that many farmers rely on a single ag retail company or co-op for their products and services—that grants ag retail a high level of authority and responsibility in recommending production practices. Embrace your position as a sustainability influencer and know that you have the expertise to set your growers on a more sustainable path that preserves their resources and profitability potential. 


Partner up

The agricultural industry is built on partnership and collaboration, so consider teaming up with sustainability leaders that can benefit you and your farmer customers. 

→ Many large agribusiness companies are diving headfirst into sustainability by developing carbon sequestration programs and tools to monitor and measure progress. 

→ Conservation organizations and government agencies can provide research and information to help support your efforts.

→ Financing sustainable practices can be a hurdle for some farmers, so consider partnering with institutions that can offer programs and support for growers interested in regenerative agriculture. 

Think outside the box and foster mutually beneficial relationships with partners with similar sustainability goals.


Meet farmers where they are

As you explore sustainability with your customers, you’ll find a broad spectrum of attitudes. Some farmers may be eager to adopt conservation practices, while others will be set in their ways and less open-minded about trying new production methods.

That’s okay. 

You want to approach sustainability with the customer’s history, attitude and goals in mind. It’s best to focus your efforts on customers who are either already employing sustainable practices, like reduced tillage or cover crops on their farms, and customers who are open to learning more about these practices.

Don’t try to force the conversation. Wait until your grower shows an interest, or you likely won’t gain much ground.

A study by Purdue University surveyed farmers and ag retailers about conservation practices. One interesting finding was that farmers wished their ag retailers would challenge them to adopt practices that would improve profitability potential. 

So, for those farmers who haven’t adopted sustainable practices, try to learn what is holding them back. 

  • Are they risk averse? 
  • Are financial limitations standing in the way? 
  • Do they need more information to make sound decisions? 

Dig in and learn what you can do to help them overcome barriers to adoption and challenge farmers to adopt new practices that could benefit their bottom lines.


Start with easy wins

For farmers ready to start on a more sustainable production journey, it’s best to start with small changes to help build confidence and demonstrate results. It’s probably not a good idea to plant cover crops on an entire farm the first season. Instead, focus on one field and help farmers get comfortable with managing a new production practice on a small scale. 

One of the simplest and most effective entries to sustainability is nutrient management. Helping farmers optimize their crop nutrition program can offer near-immediate results that a farmer can quantify. For example, taking a prescriptive approach to fertility can reduce fertilizer costs and increase crop productivity. Those savings are easily quantifiable and can encourage farmers to consider other sustainable production practices. 

Technology allows you to visually highlight production opportunities and demonstrate the value that farmers could capture by changing their practices. The ag-tech revolution has delivered plenty of technology platforms that enable ag retailers to dive deeply into their customers’ operations. These tools offer an excellent opportunity to engage farmers in conversations about sustainability and identify production needs and constraints. Some modeling software even allows you to map out the profitability potential of specific production practices before farmers adopt them. For instance, you could show how various nitrogen rates applied at different times could affect a farmer’s bottom line.  
Ag retail respondents of the Trust in Food survey indicated they most commonly recommended conservation services and products, including soil tests, in-season nitrogen, nitrification inhibitors, soil sampling, cover crops, slow-release nitrogen and reduced tillage to their customers. Soil tests, in-season nitrogen and nitrogen inhibitors are the three conservation agriculture practices ag retailers saw as having the most profitability potential for their businesses. Starting with one of these three practices is a practical way to get the ball rolling on sustainable production practices with your customers.


Focus on profitability

Whenever you’re approaching the topic of conservation with your farmers, keep in mind that profitability must be top-of-mind. 

Farmers often associate sustainable agriculture with low profits. As a trusted ag retailer, you’ll need to emphasize how adopting sustainable practices will benefit your customers’ bottom lines in the short- and long-term. Calculating the ROI on conservation practices can be challenging because immediate benefits aren’t always quantifiable. Customers may not be able to measure how improved soil health is increasing their revenue, but they may be able to see how soils drain better. Farmers may be reluctant to write a check for cover crop seed, but if you can articulate how that investment will pay off in reduced fertilizer costs and higher yields over time, it can help ease anxiety.

According to the Trust in Food report, farmers’ risk perceptions inform their conservation adoption decisions. As a trusted advisor, you can help ease apprehension about sustainability by offering technical support, education, and effective products and technology. As you make recommendations, remember to balance economics with environmental benefits. At the end of the day, if a sustainable practice isn’t profitable, it isn’t sustainable after all.  

Sustainability is a buzzword in agriculture lately, but unfortunately, large-scale adoption of conservation practices is lacking. You can use your role as an influencer to help farmers recognize the environmental and economic benefits of more sustainable ag production.

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