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CCA program enters 30th year of providing voluntary certification, continuing education for agronomy professionals

In 1992, agriculture was on the cusp of major changes. Precision technology was in its infancy. Roundup Ready soybeans were only a few years away from hitting the market. Water-quality concerns were heightening. Regulatory scrutiny was escalating.

It was in this evolutionary environment that the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) program was born. Industry leaders wanted to assure regulatory agencies that those who sold to growers were qualified to give sound advice and motivate farm consultants to keep up with the rapidly changing agricultural landscape. In fact, the program initially professed to “help agriculture meet its environmental stewardship challenge,” a purpose that remains just as relevant—and perhaps even more urgent—30 years later.

“As a producer, it takes a lot of trust to work with your ag retailer, and the CCA program helps strength­en that trust,” said Andrea Rice, director of research, education and outreach for the Missouri Agribusiness Association (Mo-Ag) and the state’s CCA program administrator. “Those who make the time and effort to become a CCA—and maintain that certification—are showing that they want to offer the best advice they can for producers and do it in a sustainable and environ­mentally friendly way.”

Created and administered by the American Society of Agronomy, the CCA program continues to set high standards of knowledge, skill and conduct for agronomy professionals. To become certified, a candidate must pass rigorous state and international exams, sign a code of ethics and have two years of experience with a bachelor’s degree in an agronomy-related field, three years’ experi­ence with an associate’s degree or four years’ experience with no degree. CCAs must also earn continuing educa­tion credits to keep their certification.

Today, there are nearly 14,000 certified crop advisers across the United States and Canada, which came on board in 1997 and made the program international. In Missouri, there are currently around 280 CCAs, and MFA employs 63 of them—more than any other business in the state. MFA has been a staunch supporter since the program’s beginnings and encour­ages employees to achieve and maintain their CCA status, said Jason Worthington, MFA Incorporated director of account management.

“The biggest reason MFA continues to support the CCA program is that it holds our folks accountable to further their education in all aspects of agronomy,” Worthington said. “It gives them more credibility to advise growers and, personally, provides confidence that they’re up to date on industry knowledge. And the code of ethics is a big part of it. It sets forth standards of professional conduct, honesty, integrity and responsibility to the customer that are right in line with MFA’s own values.”

The program is based at ASA’s headquarters in Madison, Wis., but each participating state has a board that oversees it locally. In Missouri, administration is provided by Mo-Ag with a board made of up of CCAs from different types of agribusi­nesses. Worthington, who received his CCA designation in 2006, has been actively involved in the program throughout his MFA career and recently served as Missouri CCA chairman.

MFA Precision Data Manager Thad Becker currently sits on the state board.

The CCA program is structured to be progressive and changing, allowing for alterations in the content and structure of the exams and curriculum on a regular basis. For example, each year a different competency area is evaluated and up­dated. During Worthington’s tenure on Missouri’s CCA board, he helped revamp state testing requirements to ensure the information was accurate and relevant.

“When we started going through the questions, we realized some were out­dated, some were obsolete, and some had new information that we needed to incorporate,” Worthington said. “We have to make sure the test stays on track with what our CCAs need to know here in Missouri. Agriculture is pretty diverse in our state, so that’s more challenging than you think.”

The program is founded on the idea of creating a well-rounded crop adviser, and the curriculum reflects that intention by covering four core competency ar­eas: crop management, nutrient management, soil and water management, and pest management. In addition, specialty certifications are offered in precision agriculture, resistance management, sustainability and 4R nutrient management.

The CCA exams are challenging, Rice said, and only those who are well prepared will pass. In fact, about 40% of candi­dates fail the first time they take it.

Charlie Ebbesmeyer is not one of them. He took the CCA test in 2019, just a few months after being hired full time as local agronomist for MFA’s Heart of Missouri group, and passed on his first try. The young man is understandably proud of that accomplishment.

“I’d heard about the CCA program throughout all my agron­omy classes at Mizzou, and it was something I wanted to work toward,” Ebbesmeyer said. “MFA sees quite a bit of value in em­ployees having that certification, and I wanted to be part of the group. I got hired officially in October of my senior year, and I took the test in February while I was still fresh from school. I knew it was tough, so I wasn’t really expecting to pass; I just wanted to see what it was like. But I managed to pass both the state and international exams.”

The testing phase is only the beginning of a CCA’s journey. Maintaining the certification requires 40 hours of continuing education units (CEUs) every two years. MFA offers several workshops, field days and events annually to allow its CCAs to achieve the required training. University, Extension and online programs also provide courses that count toward CEUs.

“MFA is great about making sure we have those opportuni­ties, and it’s valuable for me,” Ebbesmeyer said. “There’s just so much new in agronomy happening all the time. For example, this past summer at MFA’s Training Camp, they were talking about using AMS (ammonium sulfate) with soybeans, which has not been tested much in this area. That’s information I can take back and discuss with my growers.”

One of those growers is Curtis Roth, who farms 1,600 acres of row crops in Arrow Rock, Mo. Ebbesmeyer works with him on MFA’s Crop-Trak program and provides recommendations on fertil­ity, weed control, disease prevention and pest management.

“Peace of mind is the biggest thing for me,” Roth said. “If I have a question or an issue in the field, I can call Charlie, and he’ll take care of it. I don’t have to worry. He knows what chemicals to use, when we should use them and what problems to look out for. I like working with someone I can rely on to get it done and get it done right.”

Cassy Landewee, assistant manager of the MFA Agri Services in Chaffee, Mo., has also used her CCA training to better serve customers throughout her nearly 25-year career. She joined MFA in 1997 as one of the first precision specialists, when the technology was still brand-new to many in the industry, and became a CCA in 2000. Landewee said Chaf­fee’s longtime manager, Bruce Jansen, inspired her to obtain and maintain the certification.

“Bruce had gotten his CCA several years before me, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I could see his level of knowledge and how it helped him inter­act with farmers,” Landewee said. “When I started in this position, being a female in ag, I felt like I needed to prove myself and to help assure the customers that I knew what I was talking about when working with them. It may just be my own perception, but I believe the CCA program gave me more credibility with the growers and confidence in myself.”

As agriculture continues to evolve, Landewee said the CCA program’s educational requirements help her stay on top of changes in the industry, which, in turn, benefits growers served by the Chaffee location.

“Trying to obtain those CEUs, we’re probably diving into a lot more information than other people in the field,” she said. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re an Extension office because customers are always coming in here looking for knowledge that Bruce and I can share, and that’s great. We like being able to provide information as well as the products and services that can help them solve a problem and become better producers.”

In recent years, Rice said Missouri CCA participation has been declining, due in part to retirements of seasoned agrono­mists who were among the first to receive their certification in the 1990s. Building those numbers has become a top priority for the organization, starting with the younger generation of agronomy professionals.

“We’re reaching out to colleges and universities, working with agronomy clubs to help promote the importance of the pro­gram,” Rice said. “If students start working on their CCA cer­tification before graduation, it would certainly show potential employers how serious they were about what they were doing and maybe even boost their chances of getting a job.”

Participation is key to keeping the certification voluntary for crop consultants in Missouri, Worthington said, unlike states such as California, where CCA status is required to make rec­ommendations to growers. That’s another reason why recruiting a younger generation of CCAs is important to the organization’s future, he added.

“For new agronomists, this is not only a pathway to build their resume early on but, even more importantly, build their knowledge base,” Worthington said. “We really do need to encourage college students or recent graduates to take the initiative and get started on their CCA certification. It shows hiring managers that they have a commitment to upholding the program’s high standards.”

As a relative newbie to the world of professional agronomy, Ebbesmeyer said he can attest that the CCA program has not only been a benefit to him and his customers but also to MFA.

“I think it shows our grow­ers that we aren’t just basing everything on what we learned in college. In my case, that’s three years ago, but for some people, it’s many years ago,” he said. “And then it shows you’re dedicated enough to agronomy to be able to pass the exam and continue your education. I’m a firm believer that you should never stop learning, and the CCA program is a great way to ensure that you don’t.”

The next CCA exam dates in Missouri are Feb. 2-9, 2022. Registration closes on Jan. 5. The international CCA exam can be taken online anytime by eligible candidates. For more information, visit certifiedcropadviser.org or mo-ag.com/cca-programor mo-ag.com/cca-program.

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