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Where do agronomists come from?

Tail-end boomers across the country are watching as veteran agronomists begin to retire and they are wondering where new agronomists will come from.


November 30, 1999
By Melanie Epp

Tail-end boomers across the country are watching as veteran agronomists begin to retire and they are wondering where new agronomists will come from. Certainly they will get their basic education through the University of Guelph (or its Ridgetown Campus), but where will they get their hands-on training?

Anne Verhallen, soil management specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), is one of those tail-end boomers. “I’m watching as the retirement starts across the industry, not just within the government, but the consultants and the guys in the industry that I’ve known for years,” she says. “As you see that they’re getting closer and closer to retirement, or retiring, it’s nice to see that there are young people out there who are interested, engaged and getting the hands-on experience.”

Verhallen says students can get hands-on training through summer jobs or internships. There are two types of summer jobs that an agricultural student can seek: the more hands-on jobs, and the jobs that Verhallen calls the “pair-of-hands” jobs. While the pair-of-hands jobs are mostly labour-intensive work, the hands-on jobs train students to do more practical work, which allows them to apply some of what they have learned in the classroom. “The more the job offers them the opportunity to apply what they’ve been learning, to pursue a project, the better,” she says. “And have face-to-face dealings with growers; I think that’s really critical.”

The Undergraduate Student Experiential Learning (USEL) Project, a partnership project of OMAFRA and the University of Guelph, provides five third-year students with the opportunity “to engage in work related to knowledge transfer and translation.” The project, which lasts for 16 weeks, allows students to work with a specialist, whether it is in livestock or crops. “I was kind of excited after seeing someone do this USEL program,” explains Verhallen. “I saw a young lady who had taken all of the courses, who had all the formal knowledge and got to watch her develop.”

Dr. Clarence Swanton, who teaches in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, says OAC students have huge advantages when it comes to employment opportunities. “There is a large demand for students who are willing to work in the area of agronomy – in the area of crop protection – by a range of companies. They get good-paying jobs through the summer, and they get a lot of experience in working in the real world. And so they get jobs with consulting companies, scouting for insects and diseases, weed identification, nutrient recommendation, and they do so with the guidance of an experienced CCA.”

Swanton points to “a tremendous synergy” between studies within OAC and summer opportunities working within the industry.

Swanton is also the coach of the OAC Weeds Team, a group of students that volunteers to go to the United States for a weed science competition. In 2011, it was held at the University of Tennessee and one of the undergraduate teams won the entire competition. “They beat out 17 other US schools,” says Swanton. “And that’s the type of training opportunities, educational opportunities, and collaborative student employment opportunities that result from our training here at OAC.”

With only five positions available through the USEL program and one opportunity to join the OAC Weeds Team, the public sector’s jobs and volunteer experiences can be somewhat limited.

Gaining hands-on experience
According to Mervyn Erb, an independent certified crop advisor, many pursue summer jobs in the private sector. “Most of them got summer jobs with herbicide companies doing summer research work for the company, and there are some who got a summer job with the local fertilizer plant, doing fertilizer work,” he says, adding that equipment dealers also look for students with agronomy skills. “Equipment companies, especially people who are selling tillage equipment; they really need people who are agronomy skilled, who know about soil, agronomy, plant growth and plants.”

While these companies offer more retail-oriented work, some companies offer fieldwork as well.

Craig Chapple manages Laresco, a division of Thompsons Limited, based in Blenheim, Ontario. Laresco hires summer students and interns to facilitate their summer work, including crop scouting, report writing, soil sampling and some larger projects involving mapping or scouting. Thompsons’ new hires receive hands-on training through special programs. “We spend a lot of time training them,” he says. “Obviously, they don’t come to us ready to go to the field.”

The modules of their training program run concurrently with the business cycle. “Basic fertility is something we’ll run in January-February because that’s when growers start coming in and asking questions,” says Chapple. “The students who come have a very strong background – we try to turn it into something more practical,” says Chapple. “You know, farmers don’t respond to Latin names for weeds, so we make sure they know all the common names.”

Asked about the difference between private- and public-sector job offerings, Chapple speaks positively about the latter. “At the OMAFRA level, it’s a different plane of work,” says Chapple. “It’s a different mindset. It’s very research oriented, and that isn’t a bad thing, especially if they go from there and come into the private sector. It often works really well. It’s good background to have.”

Chapple says that when students train with Laresco, they gain valuable experience that will help them become an agronomist, mostly from the crop-scouting side. He believes that a stint with Laresco makes students more hirable and desirable.

Chapple also hopes that students will consider staying with them. “We look at Laresco as being kind of their first taste of the private sector and hope that they would consider us for future positions, and not necessarily just at Laresco, but at our parent company.”

Younger people on the move
But students are not always eager to stay with one company. Many times, private-sector companies act as stepping-stones to other positions, providing students with a variety of experiences. Paul Sullivan of Sullivan Agro, for example, has seen four of his summer students go on to become certified crop advisors. As summer students, they scout fields as agronomy assistants, working hand in hand with the full-time crew, and learning about crops and the different aspects of production. “They get a chance to ask questions and get feedback on things that they see,” says Sullivan. “So it becomes a summer job, but also a learning experience for them.”

“There are certain aspects that you can learn at college and university,” says Sullivan. “Probably the basic thing is just how to learn: have an open mind about things and interacting with people. Once you’re finished that, you get a chance to get out and work on those other aspects.”

To get varied experience, Sullivan encourages students to look to other positions, whether they are in sales or research, during the course of their three or four years at college or university. In the past four or five years, he has noticed a change in the industry. “The interest in agriculture is growing with younger people,” says Sullivan. “And there’s probably more opportunity with various companies, certainly from an experience standpoint.”

Verhallen agrees. She believes there are more developmental jobs out there, more so than is generally appreciated.