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July 22, 2004

Todd Vagts and Jeff Weier checking out the growth patterns
of a soybean field

Extension crops specialist Todd Vagts (left) and FAC Cooperative agronomist Jeff Weier check out growth patterns in a soybean field northwest of Vail. (Photo by Bob Elbert.)

Ag investigator in western Iowa

by Anne Krapfl

The whine of an off-road motorcycle split the silence in a Crawford County soybean field. Riding behind a local farmer, ISU Extension crops specialist Todd Vagts ("Votts") appeared at the crest of a hill, returning from an inspection of a far north corner of the field.

The question that morning was whether herbicide sprayed on an adjacent corn field by a local farmers cooperative had "drifted" into the soybean field, or if something else was stunting the growth and curling the leaves of some bean plants. Vagts was called in as a neutral, third-party expert to look at the field and give an opinion.

Earlier in the day, Vagts checked the progress of a soybean re-planting at another farmer's request, handled some phone inquiries about crop diseases related to moisture and did his weekly 15-minute, on-air telephone interview with news director Neil Trobak at Carroll's KCIM-AM Radio.

While he clearly appreciates organization, Vagts also thrives on the "what's coming next?" nature of fieldwork for Extension.

"No two fields are the same, so I'm always an investigator," he said. "I enjoy using scientific information to solve the questions. It's fun and it's challenging."

Vagts is one of 12 field professionals specializing in crops around the state. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in agronomy and is a certified crop adviser and certified professional agronomist, as recognized by the American Society of Agronomy. He is the go-to guy in seven west central Iowa counties: Calhoun, Carroll, Crawford, Ida, Monona, Pocahontas and Sac.

Iowa State's front line

With the growth of agronomists and other technical people on agribusinesses' staffs, the person calling Vagts frequently is one of these professionals, as in the case of the herbicide drift question.

"The co-ops see it as added value to have their own specialists on staff. A lot of information they use actually comes from Iowa State," Vagts explained. "A farmer's first call is likely to be to his co-op guy and we get the second call. Sometimes, we sort of lose our identity, but we're providing the service."

And with the volume of research and information at Iowa State backing him, Vagts said he can do a lot more than the local co-op guy.

Among Vagts' areas of expertise, ISU Extension lists integrated crop and pest management, symptoms of herbicide injury to crops, weather-related crop problems, alternative cropping systems and pesticide safety. Vagts said he's a generalist who knows how to find answers.

During the summer months, the 12 crop field specialists and faculty agronomists hold a weekly one-hour teleconference. The "campus people" address common questions or patterns out in the field. Crops specialists also use e-mail to request assistance or information among that group of colleagues. And Vagts said he calls Extension agronomy faculty on campus three to four times a week with specific or unusual problems.

Finding farmers online

Drawing on his experiences and this network of knowledge, he writes a weekly newsletter during the planting-growing-harvesting months. He posts it on his Web site and e-mails the Web address to 200 area farmers and another 200 business people in agriculture. He includes the latest information for the area on crop development, presence of insects that damage crops, soil moisture, weather forecasts. He also includes links to numerous sites on specific topics -- soybean aphids or the bean leaf beetle, for example -- for readers who want more information.

Jeff Weier, an agronomist with the FAC Cooperative, based in Arcadia, deemed the newsletter "excellent."

"I look at that all the time," he said.

Vagts estimates that 60 percent of the farmers in his territory are linked to the Internet.

"We're not doing today what they used to do in Extension. Our territories are bigger and the farms, on average, are bigger, too," he said.

Field specialists figure out what works for them and for their clients, he said.

"The Web site and the newsletter are the niche I've found. I think it's where people and where farmers are going, and it's important to be where the people are. Farmers who don't get in from the fields until 8 or 9 at night can read the newsletter or use the Web site.

"I gear it to the west central Iowa area, knowing there are lots of sites out there they could be looking at for help. I want this site to be their first bookmark," Vagts said.

He measures the success of the site, in part, by the number of repeat users it has. On average, that number is around 600 each month.

14,000 miles worth of service

Still, personal contact with growers remains a daily part of his job. Vagts receives at least three or four phone inquiries every day and looks at several fields. He puts 14,000-15,000 work miles on his car annually. He conducts about 18 training sessions each year in pesticide application. He leads a couple of annual "update" meetings -- one for farmers and ag service providers on environmental issues related to agriculture and another on pest management for area farm chemical dealers.

Vagts, who grew up on a farm in southeastern Minnesota, said he's glad to have that contact again.

"This is the first job that lets me work with farmers, one on one, and be a friend," he noted. "[In a previous job] with the seed company, I was fixing their problems. It wasn't about being a friend."


"The Web site and the newsletter are the niche I've found. I think it's where people and where farmers are going, and it's important to be where the people are."

Todd Vagts