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The need for agronomists in the future: Will technology take over?

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An agronomist is a firm fixture on most arable farms, but with technology developing so rapidly, what is the future for our crop consultants, asks Cedric Porter.

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Some say in 20 years there will be no agronomists, just digital data banks
Some say in 20 years there will be no agronomists, just digital data banks

An agronomist is a fairly new profession. Go back 70 years and few farms had someone advising them what to grow and how to grow it. But the development of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and leaps forward in plant breeding meant there was a hunger and need for on-farm technical knowledge. Now hundreds of advisers make thousands of visits every year and many farms could not operate without them.

 

The advent of digital technology, drones and diagnostic services has led some to question the role and even the need for agronomists. Some say in 20 years’ time there will be no agronomists as we see today just digital databanks which can help advise on which crop to grow, how to manage resources such as water and soil and when to apply fertilisers or pesticides. But for one of the UK’s leading crop scientists the role of the agronomist is likely to be more important than ever.

 

Prof Achim Dobermann, director of Rothamsted Research, says: “Crop production is becoming increasingly complex and agronomists will continue to play a key role in understanding the latest technology and interpreting on that on the farm.”

 

For him there are a number of trends which will fundamentally impact on the role of an agronomist:

  • 20 years from now every new variety will be genetically engineered, so an understanding of crop genetics will be important.
  • Most crops, including wheat, are likely to be hybrids. That will require a fundamental change in the way crops are grown including different seed rates and inputs.
  • There will be a convergence of genetics and chemistry. Chemical interventions will interact with the genetics of the crop to prevent and control the development of weeds, pests and diseases.
  • A convergence of conventional and organic techniques. “We need to get off the treadmill of relying on just chemical solutions, so agronomists will need to have a deep understanding of fundamental agricultural principles with a robust rotation at the heart of the system,” says Prof Dobermann.
  • More emphasis on soil, water and environmental management both to protect the environment and resources, but also to ensure efficient crop performance.

Prof Dobermann acknowledges research scientists need to engage more with both farmers and agronomists and he sees agronomists as the ideal method of translating the latest science onto farms where it can do the most good.

 

Less walking, but more talking

Agronomy businesses which also distribute crop protection products are represented by the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC).

 

Its head of crop protection is Hazel Doonan, who was previously an agronomist. For her, one of the key features of the agronomist of the future will be the ability to analyse and interpret the increasing amounts of data available.

 

Ms Doonan says: “Interaction with farmers, farm managers and staff will be as vital as ever to help them make their management and operation decisions and cut through to the information which is relevant to each particular farm situation.

 

“The advent of new technology such as drones, soil profiling and better diagnostic tools offered by many AIC members to their clients will lead to much more efficient crop management so irregularities in crop development can be prevented or detected and dealt with early on.

 

“Any time saved on crop walking will free-up more time for agronomists to help their clients make strategic decisions about the current crop and future ones. Therefore, interaction and management skills will still be needed alongside technical knowledge of the crop. It makes it a more challenging job, but also a more exciting one.”

 

Ms Doonan agrees with Prof Dobermann the list of topics which agronomists will have to cover will get longer. That will mean agronomists will need to have a greater knowledge of a wider range of topics, but could also mean the growth of a new breed of specialised agronomists with expert knowledge which farmers and other agronomists turn to when their skills are needed. Many AIC members recognise this and employ a range of specialists to complement the skills their agronomist colleagues have.

 

She says the AIC’s role, as a trade association, is in helping lobby for practical and proportionate legislation and then informing members of the legislation and market conditions which will impact on them and their clients, while also protecting the use of some crop protection systems which might be under threat and promoting their responsible use.

 

To this end, AIC members are major sponsors of the Voluntary Initiative and are also active not only in training NRoSO members but also advising farmer customers on pesticide stewardship.

 

“What farmers do is coming under greater public and political scrutiny and all agronomists have an important role in ensuring best practice and responsible use of products.”

 

What might the agronomist of the future look like?

  • More specialists – genetic agronomist, IT agronomists, crop hydrologists, crop geologists, crop meteorologists, environmental agronomists, business agronomists, etc
  • Forage agronomists – as animal producers look to better use forage and other uses for forage are introduced, knowledge will need to increase
  • Payment by performance – perhaps a retainer fee and bonuses paid on performance of the crop
  • Agronomists as farmers – agronomists taking a stake in the business and paying a fee/rent to the farmer and then keeping the crop profit
  • Food processor/retailer agronomists – processor and retailer agronomists are commonplace, but they could emerge in the cereal sector to ensure quality, spec and safety of product
  • Research agronomists – farmers or groups of farmers paying agronomists to develop new crops and systems
  • International agronomists – the UK has a reputation for world-leading agricultural science, while English becomes more and more dominant as the global language

Academy for the next generation

It is not just the role of the agronomist which will become more important, but the independent agronomist or crop consultant, according to the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC). Rob Hurren is a Suffolk consultant who has been involved with development of a new academy which AICC has recently launched to develop the skills of young agronomists.


“As agronomy becomes more complex and there is less reliance on just giving advice on which chemistry to use, the role of the independent agronomist may become more challenging but also more important. The independent’s business is built on giving farmers the best advice to allow their farms to thrive; if they don’t deliver that, their own business is threatened.”


Members of the AICC already advise on more than 1.2 million hectares in the UK and there is an increase in the number of formal groupings within the AICC. Sarah Cowlrick, CEO of AICC, says 74% of members now belong to a group and she expects this to increase.


She adds: “This provides support and economies of scale for members to employ new trainees and the AICC Academy will support them. But independents face the challenge of the larger commercial companies too – ensuring a new generation of crop consultants will be available and armed with the knowledge they need.”


From this year, new entrants and recently established members of the AICC will be able to enrol onto the academy which will provide modules which address key areas including crop protection and nutrition, rotations and soil science, resistance management, precision farming and application technology, business management and agricultural policy. There will be six fully funded places in the first year.


“All those attending will already by BASIS and FACTs registered and working with an established AICC member of group,” says Mr Hurren.


“What the academy will give them is the latest thinking on issues affecting crop production with the benefit of the experience of established consultants. By taking part as a group, the students will also establish a support network as they develop their careers. We are exploring the possibility of developing advanced on-going training modules after attendees have completed the academy.”

Painting the bigger picture

Painting the bigger picture

Also focusing on the next generation of agronomists is Harper Adams University.


Principal crop lecturer Dr John Reade says: “It is not just about students with a good grounding in current agronomic knowledge, but providing them with the ability to embrace the latest science and technology throughout their working careers.


“There have been tremendous advances in crop science over the last 20 years, but with the advent of more genetic and digital technologies, the changes facing us in the next 20 years may be even greater.”


More than 100 students a year enrol on Harper’s BSc (hons) agriculture suite of courses and while some will return to family farms or become farm managers, about 10 each year will choose agronomy as a career path. The BSc agriculture with crop management course includes a year of general agricultural studies followed by a year of more in-depth crop scientific and business management education and then a year in industry, which a number will spend at some of the country’s largest agronomy companies. A final year will include a research project and studies in advanced agronomy, crop improvement, and applied crop protection. Reflecting the rise of international opportunities, other options include global agricultural production and languages.


“The ability to see the bigger picture and interpret that on the ground is essential for agronomists. Our approach is to encourage and develop observation and analysis skills and then the delivery of advice which will improve the farming business.”

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