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  4. 2011
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Changing Consultation to Meet the Needs of Producers

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The Noble Research Institute Agricultural Division's consultation program underwent numerous changes between the middle of 2009 and the end of 2010 to improve efficiencies and effectiveness. We have been keenly intent from the beginning on minimizing any disruptions in the services provided or the previously existing consultant/client relationships. Most of the changes have been internal to the division and not obvious from the outside. Now that the changes are in place, we wanted to share them with you as well as our expectations of how they will benefit you and your operations.

In the summer of 2009, the Agricultural Division completed a strategic plan that described the outcomes we wanted to achieve over the next few years. We based these goals on our analyses of the 2007 Census of Agriculture data for the counties in our 100-mile service area, information from our cooperators (Noble Research Institute consultation clients), and the numerous experiences and observations from both Noble Research Institute staff and producers. In brief, some of the goals were to work as one consultation team; better match consultation resources to cooperator needs; and develop targeted educational events based on producer experience level. Once the strategic plan was in place, the division took action.

The first order of business was to create a "one team" approach within the Agricultural Division. Prior to 2009, the Agricultural Division's consultants were divided into four separate teams. Each team was largely responsible for a defined region within the division's 100-mile service area. This "regionalization" permitted strong consultant-cooperator relationships, and it improved efficiencies over our prior practices. However, we observed over time that regionalization required duplicate resources, and it limited important interaction among our consultants.

Always looking for opportunities to improve, we sought a system that would allow our consultants to work more closely together to deliver the best consultation "product" to our cooperators. To advance this new strategy, we pooled the consulting staff into one team. Managers now deploy the appropriate consultants to meet a particular producer's needs.

With this increased flexibility, we are able to honor all established relationships, allowing producers to continue to work with the consultants they have worked with for years. However, if a producer has specific needs in which other consultants have greater proficiency, our managers have the flexibility to assign additional staff who can better meet those needs. In essence, we view our consultants as a resource pool that will be deployed to meet the specific needs of each producer. If a cooperator has an issue that requires several consultants from the same discipline, the managers can deploy those consultants as needed. This allocation of human resources also extends to the ability of our managers to assign researchers and operations staff to address specific, identified needs of cooperators. Under this new approach, the Agricultural Division's consultation program can better address the issues of each producer by strategically matching their needs with the strengths and abilities of our entire staff.

Next, to align our consultation services, we needed to fully understand our cooperators and their tangible resources. The consultation teams worked with our cooperators to create a resource inventory. In addition to strengthening our consultant-cooperator relationships, we also were able to make comparisons of our client base to the Census of Agriculture data. Now we can confidently report accurate demographic information for the Noble Research Institute service area. For example, our cooperators make up only around 1.9 percent of the region's producers, but they manage 9.6 percent of the agricultural land and impact about 8.2 percent of the beef cattle in our consultation service area. This is significant. We appreciate the impact our consultation has on the agricultural enterprise of the region.

The next point of our strategic plan was to develop targeted educational events based on producer experience level. We have two programs to illustrate our efforts; these programs address new and beginning agriculturists at one end of the spectrum and commercial producers at the other end.

We are observing that in most of the counties of northern Texas and those along Interstate 35 in southern Oklahoma, the average farm size is decreasing while the number of agricultural producers is increasing. We have also observed that many of these new and beginning producers are nonagricultural professionals that have little or no knowledge of or prior experience in agriculture. These producers have been successful in other walks of life and now want to invest in land and agriculture. We refer to these new farmers as "rural life producers."

This growing producer sector seeks assistance through consultation and educational opportunities. To address this need, we initiated a new educational program Basic AG. Basic AG is comprised of Internet-based resources and a series of educational events to specifically address the educational needs of the rural life producer. These educational events communicate fundamental concepts to enhance this segment's agricultural knowledge, which in turn complements future consultation efforts.

As part of the consultation process with rural life producers, consultants are assigned to address the initial concerns and issues of these producers. This usually requires only one or two specific consultants instead of a full multidisciplinary team. It also allows common interest relationships to become better established between producers and consultants, which often lead to more in-depth consultation in the future. This past year, 80 percent of the new cooperators requesting consulting services were rural life producers. We expect this trend to continue.

Although we have a growing number of rural life producers, the Agricultural Division still works intensely with a large number of commercial producers - those with more resources or sufficient experience to require more in-depth consultation and education. In fact, slightly more than 50 percent of our cooperators are considered to be commercial producers.

To better meet the challenges of these farmers and ranchers, we started a series of meetings with some of our full-time, highly active commercial cooperators (strategic partners). The goal of these meetings is to better understand the most important issues facing agricultural producers in our region and what the Noble Research Institute can do to help them prepare for the future. These meetings will continue and will broaden to include not only active commercial cooperators, but also those who have reduced their agricultural activity in recent years and noncooperator agricultural entities. We expect that these sessions will not only influence activities in our consultation program, but will also influence our educational and outreach programs as well as our research efforts.

As we have often heard, the only thing constant is change. Change has become a constant in the Agricultural Division, but not change for the sake of change. We strive to change only those things that make us stronger and more effective, help the producers and benefit the larger world of agriculture. The Agricultural Division's programs will continue to evolve to meet the needs of agricultural producers today, tomorrow and into the future.

Hugh Aljoe serves as the director of producer relations (consultation and ranch management) and a pasture and range consultant. He has been associated with Noble Research Institute since 1995. Prior to coming to Noble, he managed a 3,000-acre 1,500-head cattle operation in Texas. Hugh received his master’s degree in range science from Texas A&M University with emphasis in grazing management.

Billy Cook, Ph.D.
Former Director of Ag Systems Research & Technology