Her favorite subjects in middle school were math and science, 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!