5 Looming Questions for the Future of Crop Protection

According to a recent CropLife survey, ag retailers are bullish on the crop protection market for 2024 as they expect to buy more product than the previous year in five of seven categories. Interestingly enough, retailers are expecting equipment sales to stay flat in all but one category: sprayers. This shows that farmers are looking for opportunities to optimize their crop protection programs this year and beyond.

Even if we throw out Mother Nature as a wild card, a number of questions surround the entire crop protection category that will impact farmers’ decision-making in the coming weeks, months and even years.

As such, here are five key questions we have considered as we work alongside our clients to best position their products, programs and people to stay at the leading edge of modern farming practices.

1. Are biologicals coming or going?

We don’t talk about 8-tracks or cassette tapes when comparing Spotify and Pandora. Yet, in the biologicals field, decades-old products are creating obstacles for new technology. Didn’t work, tough to handle and only works in certain conditions are old outcomes that are making it challenging for today’s more advanced products to take hold.

To that end, a best guesstimate from a panelist at the 2023 Salinas Biologicals Summit noted maybe two-thirds of pest control advisers (PCAs) were comfortable recommending biologicals. That number seemed shockingly low to me, but it made it clear that there is a lot of progress to be made on building trust within the category.

An even more obvious takeaway from that event, which is supported by countless news releases and headlines from chemical manufacturers, start-ups, ag retailers and other companies in the ag value chain, is that the biologicals industry has a massive bullseye placed on corn and soybeans.

For the biologicals movement to stick, the industry needs to take hold of this notion: Biologicals and synthetic chemistries can have a symbiotic relationship. It’s not an either, or. It’s yes, and.

Another barrier to widespread biological adoption: a massive gap in understanding. From the very basics of what a biological product is and how it works to specific use cases and how to best deploy biologicals, understanding is significantly lacking. It’s going to require plenty of field data to support the case before most farmers get on board. Once that happens and we crack the nut on row crops, expect the biologicals space to continue to grow.

2. Can the next novel herbicide technology please make its way to the stage?

If we learned nothing else from the Roundup® days, it’s that there is truly no silver bullet to controlling weeds. Although, that sure would be nice as herbicide resistance grows and weed seedbanks migrate across the United States like geese.

Nowadays, what’s old is new again when it comes to managing weeds as an increase of generics hits the market with active ingredients coming off patent. As the dicamba dust has settled down and Enlist® has made its way to the market, farmers are re-evaluating their management plans. In some cases, this means turning to some of the tried-and-true basics of weed control, and in others it means going away from the fundamentals to take a new management approach. Starting clean and staying clean with overlapping residuals, using equipment that destroys seedbanks and hiring labor to manually pull weeds are all on the table when it comes to building effective weed management programs.

If you’ve been holding your breath for new herbicide active ingredient technology, chances are you’re reading this from the afterlife. The lack of newly available technology isn’t stopping farmers from asking their retailers about herbicides. According to a 2023 Farmer Input Study commissioned by Successful Farming, growers ask co-ops and retailers about herbicides more than any other class of chemicals.

We can certainly expect the next novel herbicide technology to make a big splash in the market. Only this time, field applicators, retailers and farmers will be more cautious implementing the traits and herbicide technology as part of a long-term integrated weed management approach vs. a broadcast approach for every acre. As long as companies focus on finding new solutions, farmers will maintain trust that chemical manufacturers will come through with future technology to help protect their ROI.

3. How far off is the future of application technology?

Just because new herbicide technology hasn’t been hitting the market doesn’t mean there has been a lack of activity or innovation when it comes to crop protection application technology.

From combines that more effectively destroy weed seedbanks and implements that literally zap bugs, to autonomous tractors and single-passenger helicopters for scouting, the list of promising technology is impressively long. Multiple equipment manufacturers have introduced spot-spray technology that seems to be delivering on its promise early on.

And that’s just herbicide-centric technology. For fungicides and insect control, technology advancements are allowing farmers to be more precise with getting the right product in the right place at the right time, using only the required amount. Not a new concept, but one that continues to evolve immensely to ensure a farmer’s seed investment is protected from hopper to bin.

The future of crop protection application is now. However, expect the true impact of the new technology to grow exponentially as it gets used on more acres and as part of a more holistic approach.

4. How are crop protection products making their way to the farmgate?

If only the Amazon truck could show up at a farm within a couple of hours of ordering with crop protection inputs. With COVID-related supply chain issues mostly in the rearview mirror, business is getting back to normal. But what is normal?

According to that same Successful Farming input study, unlike your daily shopping habits, virtually no one is buying their crop input products online. In fact, retailers were the main acquisition source with two-thirds of farmers buying their crop protection inputs from local retailers/co-ops and one-fourth buying from independent dealers. 

Interestingly enough, if we look at seed purchasing for that same group, half of the farmers buy seed from independent dealers, maybe a family, friend or neighbor, and one-third buy from their retailer or co-op. Their order of trust for buying seed is:

  1. Dealer
  2. Retailer
  3. A big gap
  4. Manufacturers

A vast majority, 84%, trust their seed retailer, while trust in crop protection representatives is much lower at 56%.

5. Does the logo on the jug even matter?

Yes and no. If product performance was the only thing that came into play here, this would be a lot more cut and dried. However, seed bundles, financing offers and rebate programs are all hitched to those logos, and they can mean a lot to a farmer’s balance sheet.

Despite the fact that 70% of farmers have asked for a product or brand based on advertising, much of the credit for influencing crop protection buying decisions goes to the boots-on-the-ground retailers, agronomists and sales representatives who provide support to go along with the product. Customer service and relationships matter as much as, if not more than, what’s going into the spray tank mix.

The future of crop protection and management sure holds a lot of promise. While tried-and-true practices of pest management will never go away, it sure seems like they will benefit greatly from the new technology coming to market.

As an armchair farmer/ag PR guy, this is an exciting time to be in the business as these advancements are sure to shape the future of crop protection for generations to come.

Bill Brozak is a vice president of public relations and reputation management at Curious Plot and has worked in the crop protection/agronomy sector for more than 17 years.