Return on investment or testimonials? Seek objective information

• By Larry Oldham •

seedling corn
Photo courtesy Mississippi State University

Newspapers were all paper and sometimes quite thick when I was younger. I trained myself to ignore almost all the advertisements in them to speed things along, particularly with Sunday editions. It may chagrin the business community to learn that I, even with online news, largely continue this practice today.

Another lesson from my younger farming days is to pay attention to returns on investment (ROI). Farming is a business. Each equipment trip across a field invests time, energy and capital. Each purchased input is an investment.

The return that feeds the family is cash received for produced commodities. A non-monetary return is the farmer (and their advisers) experience gained each growing season.

Our Extension post-event evaluations show producer or crop consultant talks or panels are well received by the farming community. It is often our role to facilitate practitioners sharing their honest, objective real-world experience with their contemporaries.

Key word is ‘objective’

The keyword in sharing this information is that it must be “objective.” With this usage, says that objective means: “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.”

Recently I found a glowing farmer testimonial about some soil carbon (C) boosting elixir while clicking through a website of a soil C brokerage firm. I quickly closed it using my well-honed and long-developed response to advertising.

What I did not see on the site during the brief interaction was anything about comparing treated and untreated soil in a replicated trial, or the length of time given before assessing the response, which is very important in soil C management.

You could say that my quick click away was not objective. However, it hit two of the three features of many testimonials that I am biased against (and that I suggest you should be):

&null; Pictures of wonderful plant responses without labels or comparisons.

• Yields lacking any accompanying comparative statistics.

• Non-replicated field trials.

Mississippi has farmer (consumer) protection laws and regulations regarding soil amendments and fertilizers. All fertilizer, lime and soil/plant amendment brands and grades must be registered with the Bureau of Plant Industry within the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC).

Product claims and the supporting background research are reviewed for scientific validity in-agency, and in some cases, by an external expert panel.

The regulations require that supporting research for these products must have been on soils and in climates like Mississippi. Many soil fertility and amendment products meet these requirements and are registered to sell in Mississippi.

Unfortunately, others have had issues, often due to inadequate or nonexistent research, poor understanding of the regulations, or inappropriate statistical analysis.

Information on the requirements is available on the MDAC Bureau of Plant Industry website: Mississippi Laws and Regulations. By focusing your product investment on proven materials, you increase the chances of a positive Return on Investment.

Having said that, just as monetarizing soil C is in the frontier days, there is an ongoing revolution in harnessing biologicals to foster agricultural crop growth.

Entities ranging from small stakeholder firms to large multi-nationals already have developed or are testing numerous “beneficial substances” for plant nutrition with different activities than traditional inorganic fertilizers or many amendments.

These inherent differences have led to efforts by the associated industries and regulatory bodies to develop standards, including even the basic defining of the various product categories, that can foster effective consumer protection frameworks that will result in positive returns on investments for growers. Clarity on the definition and regulation issues is expected and needed relatively soon.

Dr. Larry Oldham is Mississippi State University Extension soils specialist. He may be reached at

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