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career of the month

Career of the Month: Agronomist

Lee Briese examines soybean plants to better determine soil health. Photo by Dr. Abbey Wick.

 

Agronomists, or agriculturists, use their knowledge of soil and plants to help farmers grow crops more effectively. They can work for government agencies, nonprofits, academic institutions, or private enterprises. Lee Briese is a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) who lives in Jamestown, North Dakota. He works as a crop consultant for Centrol, a company based in Twin Valley, Minnesota. “I am a plant doctor,” he says. “I check for nutrient, soil, and pest problems in agricultural production fields and create specific plans and strategies to manage them.”

Work overview

My work changes with the seasons. Our typical year begins in the fall. I take soil samples and bring them to the laboratory for analysis of nutrients, organic matter, and other parameters that affect crop growth. During the winter, I use the samples, along with field observations and plant and pest data collected over the summer, to make crop production plans with farmers. I also attend conferences over the winter to continue to learn, and I travel to do public speaking, though the latter is not typical for this type of job. We talk about what crops to grow in each field; which seed varieties and traits are best suited to that field; and what type of fertilizer to use, how much of it to use, and when it should be applied to support the crop while maximizing efficiency and protecting the environment.

I also make pesticide recommendations based on the pest history in each field. During the spring and summer, I scout the crop fields looking for weeds, insects, and crop diseases, as well as soil problems such as water content, salinity, and soil structure. Then I make adjustments to our winter plans to adapt to the actual conditions and pest problems we are finding. Because I work with several farms and can compare crop yields, I also see how various types of equipment work in different conditions and help farmers to make equipment changes to better address issues such as wet or dry soils and crop residues from the previous year’s plants.

I most enjoy creating plans to solve complex agricultural problems and the fact that no two problems are the same. Different farming operations—with diverse goals, equipment, and labor availability—and weather and other conditions all affect what’s possible. For each situation, I need to be able to create several potential solutions (so the farmer can have contingency plans in case it rains more or less than expected, equipment breaks down, a product is not available, etc.), often in a short period of time. My least favorite part of the job is collecting hundreds of soil samples, but these are critically important for the problem-solving process, so I actually don’t mind it too much.

Career highlights

I place a lot of emphasis on protecting our soils and wisely using all our resources. I am highly involved in soil health discussions and science groups that are helping farmers to create new practices to address soil erosion and degradation and respond to climate change. We are helping them to reduce tillage, increase the use of cover crops, reduce fuel usage, increase fertilizer and pesticide efficiency, and find ways to diversify their operations to make their systems more resilient. These efforts, along with being named International Certified Crop Adviser of the year several years ago, has led to opportunities to work with other scientists, agricultural companies and food companies to help them build programs to help a wider audience of farmers.

Career path

My interest in science began in middle school when I was a 4-H club member and joined the crops judging team. We learned about different crops and weeds, and how to identify them. We also learned about crop quality and how it affects human food and animal feed made from the crops. In high school, I worked for local farmers as unskilled labor.

I started college as an engineering major but realized I wasn’t that good at math, so I transferred to another college and studied secondary education science for a year. I then ran out of money and had family to take care of, so I took a two-year break to work at a seed and feed store. I quickly learned that no single product was right for every issue and that farmers’ challenges are puzzles with endless possibilities. I’ve always liked solving puzzles. However, I wanted and needed a better paying job, so I returned to college to study agronomy. While working on my degree, I also worked as a field scout intern—checking fields for potential problems, first with an all-terrain vehicle, and later, when the crops are bigger, on foot—for the company I work with today.

I decided to get a master’s degree about eight years into my agronomy career because we have severe soil salinity in my area, and I hoped more education would help. We still fight salinity, but I am much better at it now. I then went on to get a doctorate, because there was still more I wanted to learn. I gained a very high level of scientific knowledge about many disciplines through the Doctor of Plant Health program. This plus my experiences have made me a much better agronomist, because I’m able to see the connections in the different disciplines and can better manage things as part of a system, rather than just responding to problems. Also, I now do small research projects to address local challenges. 

Knowledge, skills, and training required

I strongly recommend a two- or four-year degree in agriculture, agronomy, entomology, or plant pathology. Additionally, students should get one or two years of direct experience. They can do this by interning for an agricultural company—working on crop scouting, seed sales, fertilizer or pesticide application, or data collection in research plots—or in an environmental position, such as a government job in soil conservation.

Advice for students

An internship or summer job at an agricultural company will teach you how the industry works, and you will see first-hand the challenges of logistics, weather, and timing. If possible, try different parts of the industry over the course of a couple of years. I also strongly recommend that students become Certified Crop Advisers, which verifies your agronomy knowledge as well as your experience providing advice to farmers.

Bonus Points

Briese’s education: BS in agriculture and MS in soil science, North Dakota State University; graduate certificate in data analysis, Colorado State University; PhD in plant health, University of Nebraska.

On the web:

www.agronomy4me.org,

www.certifiedcropadviser.org

Related careers: retail agronomist, soil conservation specialist, university extension crop production specialist

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