2011 Year In Review: A Look Back

It was another relatively quiet year for agriculture. Based upon the available data, commodity prices stayed healthy, most grower-customers overcame an ultra-wet spring to plant their crops and ag retailers successfully handled their businesses without major supply or service disruptions.

Still, looking back over the year, there were some significant events in the world of CropLife® magazine and its readers. These included potential marketplace concerns, plenty of technology partnerships and mergers and some celebrations. On the following few pages, we will look at the key events from 2011 (and a couple from the tail-end of 2010 that missed last year’s Year In Review article), spread out over six broad categories.

Marketplace

The year started with plenty of promise for agriculture, given that the sales revenues among ag retailer and their grower-customers were coming off some pretty impressive highs from 2010. At the 2011 Commodity Classic, Bayer CropScience invited several speakers to its annual Ag Issues Forum to discuss what kind of year agriculture could expect in 2011. Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter said that although it was a bit early, industry proponents needed to keep an eye on the impending 2012 Farm Bill, which he predicted will contain significant cuts in its support of conservation and nutrition. More significantly, the “safety net” now provided to the nation’s growers will change. “Agriculture will want to preserve its safety net,” said Yeutter. “The new Farm Bill won’t eliminate this, but it will redefine it, with more emphasis on risk management.”

Another challenge from agriculture could come directly from the policies of the Federal Reserve, warned Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “People are eating steaks at restaurants again,” said Henderson. “This, in turn, is helping to keep commodity prices at high levels.” However, he added, long-range projections by USDA predict that crops such as today’s $7 per bushel corn prices will eventually settle back into the $4 per bushel range after 2013 — and remain there for the rest of the decade.

Later in the year, speakers to the industry were still trying determine if $7 corn was the marketplace’s “new normal.” This included Dr. Michael Swanson, agricultural economist and consultant for Wells Fargo & Co. Swanson pointed out that today’s agricultural market is in as good a place as its ever seen. “I think it’s pretty unanimous right now — people are very enthused and energized about agriculture,” he said. “The amount of revenue today in the marketplace has literally tripled in the past three to four years.”

But how long will this last? That, said Swanson, is a very good question.

“I guarantee you — anything this good is not going to last forever,” he said. “What pushed us up into this stratosphere of good fortune is going to be the single biggest risk for us. And I think that the people that are buying inputs have not yet come to the right conclusion on how to manage this risk.”

Regulatory

In the beltway, there were a number of issues for the agricultural community to keep an eye on. These included the Endangered Species Act and EPA’s Pesticide Container and Containment rule. In particular, the issue of permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimi­nation System was a key point of contention at CropLife America. “Due to an erroneous court ruling, growers will require a NPDES permit starting October 31 for certain pesticide applications to, over or near bodies of water,” wrote the association’s Mary Emma Young in September. “This redundant regulatory burden increases liability and cost with no added environmental benefit.”

Previously, CropLife America was successfully in obtaining a six-month stay in the 6th Circuit Court’s mandate to finalize the NPDES permit program for pesticide applications. “This action was imperative in providing EPA more time to develop and issue the state pesticide permit program and reduce the burden for American farmers and other applicators who might otherwise fall victim to costly lawsuits and litigation as result of unanswered questions pertaining to agricultural applications subject to the court ruling,” said Young.

Inputs

For the most part, crop input prices were high in 2011, but with near-record prices being fetched for the crops themselves, few grumbles were heard from the grower community. Perhaps the biggest news of the year surrounding inputs came from the hint that pests, both animal and vegetable, may be finding ways to resist products to control their spread.

During the summer, a Purdue Extension entomologist reported isolated findings of resistant rootworms to bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn. “Bt corn does not kill all larva that feed upon it, and very slight feeding damage from corn rootworm is typical,” said Christian Krupke.

But, following this, researchers at Iowa State University were alerted to high levels of feeding damage in some fields, so they began to test Bt corn hybrids that expressed the Cry3B1 toxin. They found that rootworms from those fields were able to survive exposure in the lab. Currently, other Bt toxins appear to be effective against the pest.

“This is not a cause for alarm for Indiana producers, and it was something that we suspected would occur eventually,” said Krupke. “Producers should keep doing what they are doing for now as the vast majority of Bt continues to perform well for producers. This is more of a warning to be vigilant.”

In the plant kingdom, weed resistance also continued to take center stage with many growers, ag retailers and crop protection companies doing 2011. At last count, more than half of the country’s lower 48 states had confirmed resistant weeds growing in their farm fields, with a few such as Missouri possessing multiple types of resistant species. In response, many crop protection manufacturers such as Dow AgroSciences are working on new active ingredients or products that combine different modes of action to help combat this growing threat to grower productivity (see p. 48 for details on this topic).

In an effort to combat this growing weed resistance problem, BASF Corp. and Monsanto Co. announced a venture to introduce dicamba-based weed control systems for soybeans and cotton. “We are focused on providing farmers another tool for weed management,” said Kerry Preete, vice president of crop protection for Monsanto. Currently in several test plots across the Midwest, dicamba-resistant crops should be available for planting within the next few years.

Technology

In June, CropLife released the results of its 15th Precision Ag Adoption Survey, conducted with the aid of Purdue University and sponsored by Trimble. From the time of the previous study done in 2009, the number of ag retailers offering precision ag services dipped slightly, from 65.1% to 58.9%. Among technologies, GPS guidance with manual control/lightbar was the most popular offering at 66%, followed closely by GPS guidance with auto control/autosteer at 63.5%.

One of the biggest trends in 2011 in technology had little to do with product development. Instead of creating new systems for retailers and growers, many technology companies decided to simply combine their operations, formally or informally, in a wave of product alliances and consolidations. Among the ones that took place were: Topcon Positioning Systems and DICKEY-john Corp. forming a strategic alliance, Trimble acquiring the agricultural-related assets of OmniSTAR and SST Software announcing its FarmRite program will have the ability to preview and order in-season satellite imagery products from RapidEye.

Consolidation

There were a few retailer consolidations that took place during 2011, although not nearly as many as in the past few years. These started at the tail-end of 2010, when Agrium Retail completed its purchase of the crop protection business of Miles Farm Supply, Owensboro, KY, which ranked No. 18 in the 2010 CropLife 100 retailers listing. Through the acquisition, Agrium Retail adds 19 retail outlets — 16 in Kentucky, two in Indiana and one in Tennessee. “We will be operating all those outlets,” said Jeff Tarsi, Agrium Retail’s vice president of business strategies. “Kentucky was a gap area for us, so it’s really a nice fit for the company.”

Likewise, Hintzsche Fertilizer Inc. acquired Burroughs Ag Services, Inc. The company was founded by John Burroughs in 1971 and, under terms of the acquisition, will continue to operate under the Burroughs name as a subsidiary of Hintzsche.

“We look forward to the expansion of our business and the synergies it will provide to both companies,” said President David Hintzsche of the acquisition. “Our ultimate goal is to improve the production and profitability of all of our growers.”

In October, Cooperative Plus Inc. (ranked No. 83 on the CropLife 100) and Landmark Services Cooperative (ranked No. 36 on CropLife 100) officially merged their operations. The company will do business under the of Landmark Services Cooperative name and be headquartered in Cottage Grove, WI.

On the suppliers side, Koch Agro­nomic Services, LLC, a subsidiary of Koch Fertilizer, LLC, completed its asset acquisition of Agrotain International, LLC’s Agrotain in October. “We’re excited to integrate the portfolio of Agrotain stabilizer products into Koch Agronomic Services,” said Steve Packebush, president of Koch Fertilizer. “The marketplace will benefit from the synergies that exist between Koch Agronomic Services and the Agrotain International businesses, as well as the global footprint of Koch Fertilizer.”

Earlier in the year, United Phos­phorus Limited (UPL) acquired RiceCo LLC, USA, along with its subsidiaries and certain assets of the international business of its affiliate company. RiceCo mainly caters to the rice market and has a wide range of product offerings based on the herbicide propanil for this segment.

“RiceCo is a focused crop (rice) company and will benefit by leveraging UPL’s global sales and marketing network in taking its product offerings to the global rice markets. In turn, RiceCo will provide rice growers direct access to UPL’s current portfolio of products. In addition, the company will add strong brands for the rice segment to UPL’s branded product portfolio” said Jai Shroff, CEO, UPL.

Finally, on the financial market side of the industry, AgBank, Wichita, KS, and CoBank, Denver, CO, merged their operations on October 1. The merged banks continue to do business under the CoBank name and are headquartered in Colorado, but maintain U.S. AgBank’s existing presence and operations in Wichita and Sacramento, CA.

People, Places & Things

There was plenty of activity and special events involving the industry’s major players across all businesses. In particular, retailers saw lots of personnel changes at the top.

For example, GROWMARK, Inc., one of the nation’s largest retailers, got a new CEO, with Jeff Solberg replacing Bill Davisson, who retired at the end of 2010. Solberg formerly served with the Bloomington, IL-based cooperative in various positions, including senior vice president of finance.

Also at the start of 2011, Landmark Services Cooperative named Bob Carlson as its new CEO, taking over from the retired Larry Swalheim. Carlson had served as the COO for Landmark since February 2007.

Another Carlson, Jim, joined Waconia Manufacturing as a member of the company’s sales and marketing staff. He previously spent time at CHS Inc.

At Bayer CropScience, Jim Blome was named the new president/CEO and head of crop protection for the North American region, effective in July. He succeeds Bill Buckner, who will retire at the end of the year. Blome previously served as executive vice president/COO with Valent U.S.A. Corp.

In the fertilizer business, Kim Polizotto, the long-time director of agronomy for PotashCorp, retired at the end of September. His replacement is Robert Mullen.

On the anniversary front, the Midwest AG Industries Exposition (MAGIE) turned 30 years old in 2011. From humble beginning as a venue for Illinois ag retailers to get-together Illinois equipment makers, the event has grown into a nationwide (and in cases, global) trade show. “Through 30 years of changing technologies, MAGIE has been the venue in the Central U.S. to see what the equipment and service providers have to offer to the ag retail sector,” said Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, MAGIE’s organizer. “Looking back at it all, MAGIE has given something special to all of us in this industry — a place to gather, to remember the shows of the past, to experience today and to look forward to a future that holds great promise.”

In January, Brandt Consolidated announced a partnership with Turner Motorsports to serve as primary sponsor of the No. 31 Chevrolet Impala, driven by NASCAR’s Justin Allgaier.

“We are extremely excited to team up with Justin and Turner Motorsports for the 2011 racing season,” said company President/CEO Rick Brandt. “Brandt is an exciting, aggressive and family values-based company. We feel we are teaming up with a driver who embodies these same qualities, and we are looking forward to seeing him exemplify that on the track.”

In Memoriam

In October 2010, long-time Mid-State Tank Co. General Manager Jason “J.R.” Ray passed away from unknown health complications. “We were all sad to lose J.R. so unexpectedly, especially considering he was so young,” said the company’s Gene Good.

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