WASECA, Minn. -- Bruce Schwartau is hitting the books hard these days prepping for what he knows will be a difficult Certified Crop Advisor program test Feb. 3 in Willmar.

The Waseca County Extension educator will take two tests; one that will measure his crop production knowledge on a national scope and another that focuses on conditions more germaine to Minnesota fields. If he passes both, he will become a certified crop advisor. If he fails to pass one or the other, he will have to wait until next year.

Schwartau is expected to be among about 315 people who will be testing their crop production knowledge in Willmar with the goal of achieving certification through a program developed by the American Society of Agronomy. The Certified Crop Advisor program was established three years ago and is active in 38 states. The goal of the voluntary program is to improve the quality and consistency of information farmers receive from their crop advisors.

Why is Schwartau -- along withand about 40 or 50 other extension educators -- taking the test?

``As extension educators who specialize in crops and crop systems,'' he said, ``we feel it is important to do the same type of certification as an independent crop consultant.''

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The test and certification is open to any qualified individual who makes nutrient, pest or environmental recommendations for farmers, whether in private practice, government or industry. The program's ultimate goal is to help farmers address water quality, soil loss, integrated pest management and other environmental issues.

There is an important difference between professional crop advisors and crop consultants. Crop advisors are allowed to sell products in addition to providing services, but not all do.they don't all sell products.

Crop consultants cannot sell products. Crop consultants also have their own state and national professional organizations.

Schwartau figures he'll spend 40 hours boning up for the exams. Because he had 11 years of experience working in the ag chemical industry before joining the extension service, he's spending most of his study time on crop fertility.

This is the second year the test has been held in Minnesota. About 50 percent to 55 percent of the exam takers pass. There is a reason for that.

``We have a reputation as having a difficult test,'' said Steve Sodeman, chairman of the CCA board. ``That was our goal.''

Sodeman owns United Ag Tech, a crop consulting firm in Trimont.

The tests will take all day to complete, but there is much more to certification than merely textbook knowledge, Schwartau said.

To earn certification, candidates must have two years of crop production experience and a bachelor's degree in agronomy, or four years of post high school experience. An applicant also must sign a code of ethics.

The standards were established by a national board consisting of consultants, government, industry and university representatives. State boards -- made up of officials from the ag departments and environmental agencies -- the extension service, agribusinesses, farm organizations and others administer the program at the state level.

If a complaint is received about a crop advisor, the state board has the authority to investigate. If wrongdoing is found, the board can pull the advisor's certification.

Certification is not a one-shot deal. Certified advisors also must maintain their skills by completing 40 hours of continuing education credit over a two-year span.

The certification process is seen as positive by those in the industry.

``This is a benefit to the industry,'' says Craig Sallstrum, executive director of the CCA program. Sallstrum is also executive director of the Minnesota Plant Food &; Chemical Association, which does some of the legwork for the CCA.

Certified or not, Schwartau said, certified or not, farmers need to use a common sense approach when they decide to hire a crop consultant or advisor. Farmers should ask for references, check on the individual's area of expertise and make sure the person fits in with their farming philosphy.

``You want to see that they have a track record . . . what they have done for other people,'' Schwartau said. ``Look for a person who is constantly upgrading their education level.''

Some farmers have the mistaken impression that crop consultants tend to recommend chemical use in all situations, Schwartau said. In reality, a good crop consultant or advisor will help clients determine if chemicals or tillage operations might be best used.

``Crop consultants should you give you pesticide recommendations and nonpesticide recommendations,'' he said. ``They should work with you to tell you at what infestation level you should use a pesticide and when you should not.''

Schwartau also said that farmers need to fully understand how the consultant or advisor will be paid -- whether payment for services rendered will be on a per-acre or per-hour basis. And the contract between client and advisor should state what services will be provided.@et