Do you like problem solving? Innovating through science? Do you want to make a difference by helping others or protecting the Earth? Then a career in agriculture may be right for you. The future of agriculture involves breakthrough technologies, sophisticated research techniques, complex economic models, many fields of science, and more.
Check out the career spotlights below to learn how they got to where they are today, what a typical day is like, and what skills they use on a daily basis.
As a young girl growing up on a grain farm, Lisa Rosener was always fascinated by the relationship between farming and technology. She was also interested in a little competition with the rest of her family! In the five generations her family had owned a farm, no female had ever driven the equipment. Lisa knew that had to change. After several denied requests, she became the first female in almost 100 years to drive the combine around the farm. It would not be the first time she didn’t let "being a girl" stand in her way!
Today, Lisa works as a precision agriculture specialist, a predominantly male profession. That means she uses agricultural technology to help farmers get the most productivity out of their fields, one acre at a time. Once she is assigned to work with a farmer, she breaks down their field into two and a half acre grids using GPS technology. Each grid is assigned a number. She then works with her team to gather soil samples from each grid. The samples are analyzed by a laboratory, and a report is sent to Lisa with the fertility and Ph of the soil and the major nutrients it contains. Lisa uses technology to create a specific prescription (kind of like a doctor’s prescription) for each acre. Prescriptions are customized based on what crop the farmer wants to grow and what they want to get for yield. Some farmers simply want to maintain what they are currently getting but do it more productively. Others want to increase their yields. The prescriptions detail what type and how much fertilizer is needed as well as how much to irrigate. According to Lisa, "every farm has good spots and bad spots." For the good spots, we want to yield as much as we can and, in the poor areas, we don’t want to over-fertilize or over-irrigate." Lisa monitors the health and the moisture of the soil throughout and after the planting season. Moisture probes connected to telemetry sit in the ground and send data about the soil to her computer every day.
A precision agriculture specialist’s job is constantly changing. Each season brings a different timeline for what needs to happen. Lisa likes the fact that no two days are ever the same. "It’s not a 9-to-5 job behind a desk," Lisa says. "I spend about one-third of my time doing computer analysis and two-thirds out in the field with the farmers."
Soil is extremely important to Lisa’s job. She used to think dirt was just dirt, but now she knows she was wrong! "Soil is the foundation of farming," she says. "When you use tools and technology to learn about the soil, you unlock the potential of a farming operation." Having healthy soil is critical to what every farmer is doing. When there is a problem, it is more than likely a result of something that is happening with the soil. Lisa adds, "You can make the majority of soil better. A lot of it is learning what the soil is, what’s in it, and what type of management you need for that soil to help it reach its potential."
In high school, Lisa loaded up on math and science classes, still not sure what career she wanted to pursue. She was a member of the Future Farmer’s Association (FFA) and participated in an agronomy contest her senior year. Her success in that contest combined with her interest in farming and technology made her realize that agronomy might be a good path for her. She didn’t know at the time, however, that she would specialize in precision agriculture. After graduating from high school, Lisa got her agronomy degree from the University of Nebraska. She also got her Certified Crop Advisor license. This is a voluntary enhancement to Lisa’s credentials and requires her to take a number of continuing education credits each year.
When asked what skills or interests would be good for someone who might be interested in precision agriculture, Lisa pointed to an interest in technology, science and math. A majority of her job is analyzing data and working with computer models. It’s also important to be a good communicator and to be able to manage time and projects effectively. Lisa is often working with up to 100 different farmers at a time. An important part of her job is to keep up with the latest technology as agriculture technology is constantly changing. "A lot of my farmers count on me to share the latest technology with them," Lisa says. "Agriculture technology has really taken off in the last four to five years and it will probably continue to grow at a rapid pace." It’s not important to have a farming background, according to Lisa. But it is important to have the data and agronomy education and experience.
The best part of Lisa’s job? When her farmers are pleased with how she has impacted their crop yields. The true test is in the fall when farmers can actually see if their goals have been met. One farmer recently told Lisa that, after doing the variable rate technology on his field, he has bought less fertilizer while increasing his overall return on investment. He told her he has really bought in to the technology and expertise she has offered. Every success story at the end of a harvest is a "huge win!" She is also proud of how her work impacts the environment in a positive way. "When we grow more using the same amount of land or use less fertilizer or less water to irrigate, it helps the environment." The biggest challenge of her job, according to Lisa, is keeping up with the technology. She tries to always get the "latest and greatest" for her clients and, since everything is customized, she must be aware of all possible technologies and all of the farming equipment her clients currently use.
"There are very few females in this industry," according to Lisa. "But that is changing." In fact, Lisa was the first female agronomist in a very big part of Nebraska. She had to prove herself at the beginning but, as her family learned while she drove that combine many years ago, she is not one to shy away from a challenge!
Pat Schaddel spent his childhood working alongside his parents and five older brothers on his family’s Illinois farm. They raised cattle and grew corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. Farming was in his blood, but he never thought it would be his life’s work. Pat left the farm for Chicago to pursue an engineering degree from DePaul University. He ended up with a business/finance degree and hoped to find a job in the big city. However, his father’s death just before college graduation changed everything. He went home to the farm and realized that farming was part of who he was. He looked for a way to combine his love of agriculture with his business and engineering savvy. A career in crop consulting seemed like the perfect fit.
Today, Pat works at BRANDT as part of a team that consults with crop growers (farmers) across Illinois. His job is to help growers make decisions and maximize the productivity of every acre they touch, based on agronomic information such as soil testing, product validation, and nutrient composition. His team is made up of two agronomists and a technical systems-specialist. Pat’s goal is to advise growers on how to be stewards of the environment while being agronomically sound; how to produce a better, healthier crop that can feed the world’s growing population; and how to do it in an affordable way for both growers and consumers. After all, according to Pat, "If growers are out of business, we are out of business."
One of the most common types of agronomic information Pat’s team offers to growers is a soil analysis/profile. His team analyzes the soil and puts the data in an algorithm that helps Pat create a prescription for where nutrients and fertilizer need to be added. In the fall, after the grower has finished harvesting, Pat’s team collects yield information so they can make fertility recommendations. Pat calls soil "precious stuff" and loves the story that it tells, not only about a harvest but also about the history of our nation and our world.
His work with growers also helps the average consumer. "Our role is a benefit to the American citizen because we are doing more with less," Pat says. "There is less farmland every year in the United States due to urban development and sprawl." How does Pat do this? "By being more efficient, being good environmental stewards, looking at water management, and producing a healthier crop while leaving the ground in better shape than it was. When we produce the largest crop we can in the most efficient way, it also ensures that supermarket prices are not drastically affected."
On a typical day, Pat can often be found on the phone or meeting with the "trusted advisors" who are in the field with the growers. He is constantly asking himself how to improve his team’s productivity so that the growers benefit. Pat began his career at a crop consultant firm where he worked for a number of years directly advising growers and selling fertilizer and chemicals. He eventually became certified in agronomy to help him understand both the agronomic and scientific side of the business. When he began to work for BRANDT, he was able to combine the scientific aspects of agronomics with the technological and data analysis side. He soon realized how much sense it made to collect data that could influence a grower’s yield. He began to study the soil’s properties, how much rain a field got, and how new technologies, like hybrid seeds, could help growers. For example, by studying soil properties, a grower can learn what to plant and how much in which part of the field. "If you have sand at one end of a field and silty loam in the other, you must plant a higher population in the loam because of its holding capacity. Sand is too coarse and won’t hold moisture." Pat sees his role as the "crossroads where agronomy, technology and business merge."
When asked what advice he would give to young people who want to follow in his path, Pat shared some interesting information. He finds the ability to communicate effectively to be the most important part of his job. "Look for opportunities to take public speaking and to communicate through written and verbal word," he advises. "Gain experience looking in an adult’s eye and speaking in complete sentences!" He also suggests taking as many science and technology classes as possible to learn all aspects of critical thinking and data analysis. "You can always go back to school to get a business degree, but it’s not as easy to go back to get a science degree." He also suggests participating in FFA if it is offered. When asked if growing up on a farm is important, he says that there are more and more people joining the agriculture industry with no farming background, and that’s fine. He hopes the industry learns to adapt to the next generation of employee that may have never stepped foot on a farm.
Pat calls working for BRANDT the best part of his job. The company offers him a great deal of independence, and he has the ability to create different technologies and programs. He says that working in agriculture naturally offers a lot of independence. "This is never a nine-to-five job in a cubicle." The biggest challenge? "We want to be change agents for our clients and the industry as a whole. People have to be willing to change in any business and there can be some resistance to that. Our goal is to change traditional practices if there is a better, more economical way." There are also long days in agriculture, according to Pat. During some parts of the year, his job can be a seven-days-a week, sunup to sundown. So it’s important to be passionate about it.
Pat encourages young people to really consider the agriculture industry when thinking about a career path. "The agriculture industry as a whole has a tremendous number of job opportunities in addition to a traditional grower including soil scientist, accountant, plant breeding, livestock, engineer, and data analyst." It’s also important to note that, while the industry is not recession-proof, it’s often the last industry that feels an economic downturn. "Agriculture survives a lot better than other industries because people have to eat and the world population isn’t going to stop growing."