Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Becoming an Agronomist

Over the past month or so I received some messages from some high school and university individuals who are curious about becoming agronomists. The questions have ranged from “What makes a good agronomist?”, “Do I have enough experience?”, “What schools are good?” and more. I also saw a tweet from @trouttroller (Jack Payne), an agronomy instructor at Olds College that got me thinking too. Before I start, I want to say I am probably not the best person to answer this, being a new agronomist myself, there are probably more qualified people, but I’ll give my 2 cents on what I did to learn more, what i think is important  and what others have told me is important, and hopefully some comments from other individuals will come along as well. 

The first question I wanted to touch on is one I got asking if they were experienced enough to even consider going into an agronomy program. My answer is, if there was a qualification to get into the agronomy profession I definitely wouldn’t have qualified. The only interest I had in agronomy up until 4 years ago was climbing on the chemical boxes when I was a kid (my dad works for Viterra). If you were to tell me 5 years ago I would work in the Ag Industry I would have laughed and walked away, if you told my friends and family they probably would have laughed even harder. The day before I started my first scout job the only thing I knew was that you wanted to kill dandelions (seriously). So to put it simply, NO, there is no experience needed before considering majoring in agronomy. You get a basis in school and the real experience will come in the summers, and acquiring more experience wont stop until you are retired. Just to touch quickly on the school question, obviously there are the strong schools like the University of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba in Western Canada and University of Guleph in Ontario. But I think at the end of the day school choice is what you make of it. You do more learning in your summers and spare time than in school a lot of the time. Plus, I look at someone who is a well respected agronomist like Steve Larocque who went to the University of Lethbridge (and Olds College I believe), a school which isnt considered strong in agriculture necessarily. I went to  Lethbridge College and the University of Lethbridge personally and will say the College was a great experience and wouldn’t tell anyone to write off going to a 2 year diploma program (most have the option for University after anyways).

The next thing I got asked is “What makes a good agronomist?”. This is going to be answered differently by anyone you ask, and Im probably going to miss some things cause it isnt one simple characteristic or trait, but here are some things I consider important. The first thing I notice about good agronomists is that they are curious. They want to continually learn, ask questions, ask why, talk to new people, cross reference information, dig deeper and more. The one thing I have realized is the more I learn, the less I seem to know.  It always seems like once I learn something I find myself with more questions to try and explain why. It is a constant circle and one of the reasons I love agronomy so much. Next, being observant is something I notice in good agronomists. My first boss with Cargill, Scott Knutt, taught me how important this is. When you are in the field, don’t take anything for granted, check things, dig them up, ask questions, google it etc. Scott always seemed to know how certain varieties for example would react to certain situations. Things like that can only be noted by physically being in the field and paying close attention to even the most miniscule thing. It doesn’t have to be just varieties either, noting soil texture variance in the field or crop turgor after certain weather events and more can go a long way to helping you understand why a plant may be doing what it is doing, and end up helping you solve a problem later on. Lastly, I think passion is what seperates a good agronomist from an average one. The people I learn the most from are the ones who love agronomy, are happy to help you, excited to be there enhancing grower yields and their knowledge base. You could add in problem solver, people person, organized and more as well, but those are my top 3.

The last question, or better termed, concern, that was brought to me was a young guy saying its tough to gain experience. Not meaning necessarily a job was tough to come by, but the same concern I had in that there was a feeling of being “behind”  when starting and knowing you cant just fast forward to the next growing season right away so its tough to continually learn. Here are a few of the things I did when I was a summer student to soak in as much experience and knowledge as humanly possible in a short period of time:

First thing I did was make up fake, but possible situations, research them and then write down a solution and give it to my boss (Scott) to give me feedback on. I would do this with rotation examples a lot to really understand why you want a rotation a certain way. I also made up cards with a bunch of different weeds and weed stages, would pull 3-7, then pull a card with a crop and stage on it and go through the Crop Protection Guide figuring out possible herbicides and tank mix options, write them down and then go ask which would be the best and why. This lead into learning which actives were stronger on certain weeds or species (eg: Lontrel (clopyralid) products on Canada Thistle), crop safety etc. I did this with fungicides and diseases, insects and insecticides, seed treatments and diseases and the list goes on.

Next thing I would do is study something, then go to a field and search high and low for it and not allow myself to head home until it was found. I remember reading about Cereal Leaf Beatle and going to a field by Bow Island and deciding I am not leaving till I find the larvae, the beetle and some damage. I also did it with diseases like rust and Sclerotinia too. This keeps you in the field searching and a lot of the time finding other new things. Another rule I had was you cant leave a field without making a new observation, whether it be the effect of deep seeding on wheat vigor early season or a varieties height later in the season. Going touring later on in the summer (Late July-August)  is prime time for doing something like this.

Lots of the time it is easy to just ask questions when you don’t know something. But make  it a goal to try and get atleast an idea of what something is before asking a question. This usually involves flipping through numerous books and is quite time consuming. Lots of the time it was tough to find things when starting out, but as I kept flipping through books looking for weeds for example, you take notice of the ones you aren’t looking for too and low and behold you eventually run into those weeds and say “hey I saw that last week when I was looking for milkweed, that’s Canada fleabane”. That extra time you take searching isnt wasted, it eventually pays off. With all that said, it is still good to sometimes take in things like weeds to confirm or get more info cause generally those older, experienced agronomists have fun facts like where it typically grows, what kills it etc. I have a number of other “games” I used to make up to try and learn more, but those were some of the ones I think I got the most value out of. Make up your own, everyone learns differently so keep that in mind.

Hopefully some aspiring agronomists gained something out of this and especially the individuals that asked me the questions. The last thing I want to say is simply try and learn a couple new things every day whether it be from reading, scouting or talking to a farmer about his year and asking a question like how his Lillian wheat was to harvest compared to his Waskada for example. There will always be something new to learn when it comes to agronomy, sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.