Outlook 2010: Crop Protection

In the grand scheme of agriculture, 24 months doesn’t seem like a very long block of time. However, from the perspective of the crop protection products business, 24 months must seem like an eternity ago. As many ag retailers and suppliers are quick to note, the entire industry was positively giddy with excitement at the start of 2008. Agriculture was just coming off a record year in corn acreage, and a positive growth curve for ethanol was expected to fuel increased sales for years to come.

• Chart: Corn Harvest Progress

Initially, things panned out this way. In its annual survey of ag retailers, CropLife found that crop protection product sales among CropLife 100 dealers increased more than $1 billion from 2007 to $6.5 billion.

But the upward trend didn’t last very long.

“Compared with other years, 2008 was an anomaly,” said Bill Buckner, North American head of crop protection, president/CEO for Bayer CropScience. “As a year, 2008 brought to light all the fears and unknowns in agriculture, countries that normally exported grain started hoarding it. Furthermore, wild swings in glyphosate and fertilizer prices made the world topsy-turvy for most companies that do business in agriculture.”

This made for a very difficult 2009 for the entire ag marketplace. According to data compiled in the CropLife 100 retailer survey, crop protection product sales fell $100 million to $6.4 billion. “Customers made much more cautious purchasing decisions in late 2009 vs. early in 2009,” said Buckner. “In the end, everyone suffered a downturn in sales. This also probably means we are in for much more challenging times going forward.”

Getting Better

Despite this fact, Buckner is optimistic that the outlook for crop protection products in 2010 is getting brighter. “Next year looks fairly promising for all of us,” he said, speaking at December’s Agricultural Retailers Association meeting. “I don’t think we will see the growth in crop protection product sales as we did in 2008, but the pounds on the ground should shape up to make it a pretty decent year.”

According to his market intelligence, there are two reasons to expect positive growth in the industry. First, he surmised, market growth should occur in part because of 2009’s late harvest and resultant poor crop quality in many regions of the country, particularly parts of the Midwest. This will most likely mean the nation’s carryover stocks will continue to decline, increasing pressure on growers in 2010 to bolster production in major crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat to compensate. “We will have to figure out ways to get more yield out of what we produce in this country,” said Buckner.

To achieve this, grower-customers will have to utilize crop protection products instead of foregoing these inputs in favor of newer biotech seed varieties. “I don’t care how many germplasms you have stacked in that seed,” he said. “If you don’t have ag chemicals on the ground, you are not going to produce the crop yields you want.” Buckner added that research has consistently shown that not using crop protection products leads to a average yield reduction of 48% for most crops.

The other reason to anticipate crop protection product growth in 2010 could be a result of the continuing battle against resistant weeds. For the past few years, the number of weed species with confirmed resistance to popular active ingredients such as glyphosate has been steadily on the rise.

To keep grower-customers from experiencing future yield losses to these weeds, Buckner believes it is critical for the industry to expand its efforts to find new active ingredients and new modes of action to retake crop ground. “Mother Nature will always come back to bite us if we ignore this,” he said.

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