Leading Ag Retailers Rank the Most Important Ag Developments Over Past 40 Years

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By any stretch of reckoning, 40 years is a long time. Think about how much things in the world have changed since 1984 — from fashion trends (remember “big hair styles?”) to new product development (iPhones anyone?) to the way people shop for items (from visiting stores in person to online delivery). Over these past 40 years, there have been multiple changes taking place that have fundamentally changed the way all things work in the world of 2023.

As with the globe itself, the world of agriculture in 2023 is radically different than it was back in 1984. Indeed, many of the companies and agricultural practices of those days have disappeared completely or been altered to feature new names and/or different ways of being employed than they were previously. As Don Harberts, Vice President of Agronomy for Cooperative Farmers Elevator, Rock Valley, IA, wrote on his 2023 CropLife 100 survey: “The biggest development in ag retail during the past 40 years is the changing dynamics of farming and the shift to the surviving segments of growers.”

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Victor Lopez, President and CEO at Rockwood Ag Services, Brawley, CA, agreed. “Over 40 years, we in ag retail have become, by default, hyper-aware of the better use of resources,” he wrote. “We have been able to provide solutions to customers from different sources and categories in order to maintain relevancy.”

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In celebrating 40 years of the CropLife 100, we asked our survey respondents to tell us what they believed were the most important and significant developments to take place in agriculture and ag retail during that time. Of the myriad options available, five items rose to the top of most lists, with one clear favorite ranked at No. 1. Below, CropLife magazine presents the top five vote getters from this year’s survey when it comes to this question (in reverse order).

5. No-Till Farming

Coming in at the fifth spot on the list of key agricultural developments since 1984 was no-till farming. This was cited by 2% of the 2023 CropLife 100 respondents as a major farming practice change, which ultimately impacted select ag retailers.

By definition, no-till farming involves not disturbing the soil from harvest to the following year’s planting. For growers, this has reportedly led to fuel and machinery savings.

However, according to Kathleen Sims, President of Sims Fertilizer & Chemical, Osbourne, KS, no-till also helped save time — an important consideration given the state of today’s employment issue. “Most of the kids left the farms during these years, which created a labor shortage,” wrote Sims. “No-till farming helped with this.

4. Consolidation

Not surprisingly, most of the major trends/developments in agriculture over the past 40 years have changed year after year. However, there is one item that has remained constant since that first CropLife 100 story appeared in 1984 — consolidation. Back in the 1980s, grower consolidation was just starting to pick up steam (a by-product of the dark economic times experienced by many in agriculture during the early days of the decade). This was quickly followed by consolidation at all levels of agriculture – equipment, crop protection products, fertilizer, and seed. Before long, ag retailers also got caught up in the mix. In the December 1984 issue of Farm Chemicals, that first CropLife 100 story said that there were approximately 25,000 retail outlets spread out across the country. Since that time, 18,000 facilities have disappeared — either through direct consolidation or being replaced by so-called “mega-plants.”

“Industry consolidation is the issue, from the grower-customer on up,” wrote Lance Whitney, CFO at Land View, Rupert, ID. “This is due to increased competition and technology, along with forever changing markets and shrinking farmable acres.”

Brad Fronning, Head of Agronomy Operations for West Central Ag Services, Ulen, MN, agreed with Whitney’s view — to a point. “Consolidation of ag retail has affected the industry in a number of ways,” wrote Fronning. “The number of competitors has decreased but the competition is still very strong. Online retailers are starting to gain a foothold and change the way retail is done.”

3. Seed Traits/Genetics

The next major agricultural development over the past 40 years ties back to the advancements made in seed traits and genetics. In 1996, the first commercial sales of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn/cotton and Roundup Ready soybeans paved the way for not only improved pest control in crop fields, but also the promise of increased yields. Over the next few decades, biotech seed led to whole cropping systems becoming commonplace within agriculture. Today, along with glyphosate-resistant seed traits, ag retailers and their grower-customers can select from numerous others, including Liberty, Enlist, and Xtend, to name a few.

“Roundup Ready technology has changed the level of weed control and allowed more flexibility in spray programs,” wrote Willy Kapp, Vice President at Carolina Eastern-Vail, Salem, NY.

For other ag retailers such as Agtegra Cooperative, Aberdeen, SD, advances in seed traits and genetics has opened up new markets for farming. “For us, the advent of traits and genetics has moved the row crop market into the Western plains,” wrote Daryl Molskness, Senior Vice President of Agronomy.

And according to Steven Feldkamp, Owner of NEW Ag Services, Hortonville, WI, newer seed traits have been useful in combating one of agriculture’s biggest question marks each growing season — Mother Nature. “In years with drought or weather issues, seed genetics have increased our ability to power through,” he wrote. “That is huge!”

2. Speed

The second most cited key trend for agriculture these past 40 years is a bit more loosely defined — the speed of things. “I believe the biggest development has been the incredible need for high service among growers,” wrote Seth Ricketts, President of Ricketts Farm Service, Salisbury, MO. “This has come about because of grower size, weed control challenges/resistance, and the need for multiple passes and modes of action. High-service ag retail is needed by growers in order to help them expand their operations and will continue to be needed and remain relevant in the future.”

“The speed of change is huge today vs. 40 years ago,” agreed George Secor, President/CEO at Sunrise Cooperative, Fremont, OH. “It all comes down to how fast a crop can be planted and harvested.”

For all ag retailers — from small to large — this “need for speed” in agriculture has altered how companies within the CropLife 100 conduct business. “Since 1984, there’s been a transformation from merely supplying products to providing comprehensive, sustainable solutions,” wrote Ryan Whitney, Senior Manager, North America Retail Communications for Nutrien Ag Solutions, Loveland, CO. “Nutrien embodies this change through our local agronomic expertise combined with global reach. Our investment in people and technology reflects a shift towards a more responsive and innovative approach to customer needs.”

1. Technology

Speaking of technology, it probably comes as no surprise that CropLife 100 ag retailer cite this as their No. 1 trend/development over the past 40 years. In fact, 50% of respondents said that the adoption/development of ag technology has had a profound impact on the entire ag retail marketplace.

“The widespread use of computer-aided technology — such as controllers, yield monitors, guidance, software, etc. — in all ag equipment and offices has improved efficiency, accuracy, and decision-making,” wrote Craig Masterson, Owner of Burnt Prairie Fertilizer, Burnt Prairie, IL.

Jack Steichen, Sales Agronomist/Marketing for B and D Chemical, Cullom, IL, seconded this view. “Computers have improved everything in regard to ag retail,” he wrote.

Other ag technological advancements cited by 2023 CropLife 100 ag retailers included the entire spectrum of products and services developed over the past 40 years. Precision agricultural practices, boom section controls, in-cab computing systems, drones, and autonomous vehicles all received mention on numerous CropLife 100 forms.

Furthermore, many ag retailers expect technology to continue driving agriculture forward for the next several decades as well. “Technology in totality will increase the ability for ag retailers and growers to make informed decisions,” wrote Nick Christen, Vice President of Grain and Agronomy at ALCIVIA, Cottage Grove, WI.

Jon Brabec, Chief Marketing Officer at Frontier Cooperative, Lincoln, NE, also thought so, looking specifically at another recent technology development — artificial intelligence (AI). “AI will be the biggest change for all of us!” wrote Brabec.

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