How to start a rewarding career as an agronomist

8Feb2016

Helping farmers get the most out of their cropping can be a highly rewarding career and whether you are a farm manager looking for new challenges or want to move outside the family farm, joining a scheme with one of the agronomy companies is one way to get on the ladder.

Chris Groom, Suffolk

Chris Groom has farming in his blood and he is an example of a farmer’s son who had to look beyond the family business for a career, as one of four brothers on the family farm near Bury St Edmunds. “Agriculture is a way of life, but the farm wasn’t big enough to support all of us, so I decided to go to university to expand my options,” says Mr Groom.

He studied for a BSc in agriculture at Harper Adams and in 2011, his placement year, secured a place in Agrovista’s trials team. During this time he attended several training days. “Agronomy really started to appeal, keeping me involved with practical farming while being at the cutting edge of production techniques.”

He impressed Agrovista enough to be offered a full-time position, held open until he had graduated. “I jumped at the offer,” says Mr Groom, who joined five other successful applicants at the company in October 2013. “I bypassed the interview process – candidates usually have to submit a CV and application form to be considered for a regional interview. The best are then invited for a second interview at head office, after which final selection is made.

Mentoring

“There were about 100 applicants in 2013, so it’s pretty competitive, but so is anything else that’s worth doing.”

The Agrovista Academy covers two years of initial training, followed by ongoing professional development to help people develop core technical and business skills as well as management development and specialist training.

“We were assigned a mentor for the first two years,” he says. “These are newly qualified agronomists who are best placed to offer help and advice.”

Provided vacancies allow, trainees can choose the region in which they want to be based, before being assigned to a depot’s agronomy team. The first year includes technical skills development through BASIS training – recruits are expected to pass the exam by June in the same year, says Mr Groom. “We shadow one or more agronomists in our area and other parts of the country too, to learn more about putting BASIS into practice.”

Other training includes IT and recording systems, business development and relationship management. Trainees also start visiting potential farmer customers in their area with a view to building their own business. “No one expects you to be walking thousands of acres overnight, but it really helps build confidence and gets your name out there,” says Mr Groom.

The rest of the time is filled by trips to agrochemical and fertiliser companies, machinery manufacturers and other businesses associated with the sector. “The hours do mount up and there’s plenty of travelling. But it’s fascinating to see how the arable industry fits together – I learned a lot despite my farming background and degree.”

Year two continues most themes, including post-BASIS development at company trials sites, Facts training and soil and nutrition management. Job shadowing continues and trainees carry on building their client bases with ongoing support from their mentor. Once the second year is complete, trainees emerge as newly qualified agronomists, backed up by Agrovista’s expert technical team. They also have access to professional training and development throughout their careers.

A yearly appraisal ensures agronomists are progressing as they and the company expect. “Agrovista is realistic about targets. As you get more in to the job, so the targets grow,” says Mr Groom, who is now building his own client base in Suffolk.

Keith Truett, Kent

New blood need not necessarily be young blood when it comes to agronomy. Keith Truett has almost 30 years of farming experience and did his BASIS, FACTS, agronomy and farm management training while with Sentry, whom he joined after leaving agricultural college.

He moved to Kent in spring 2000 as arable manager on a large private estate, which included 1,410ha of arable and three dairies. “More recently, after looking after a farm on Romney Marsh, I took over part of a retiring Agrovista agronomist’s business on the recommendation of my Agrovista agronomist, Rob Purvis,” says Mr Truett.

He had been doing his own agronomy for some years, supported by professional agronomy backup and NIAB TAG membership (he is NIAB TAG committee chairman).

Given that experience, he spent less time in the academy than other recruits. “My main involvement has been through a commercial training course that set out to prepare agronomists for the commercial aspects of their role,” he says “However, I have seen enough to know the academy gives all employees expert training at various levels, backed up by ongoing staff assessments identifying training needs.”

Ongoing technical training is helpful once qualified, he adds. He also finds the in-house technical database, which provides manufacturer information, trials results and various technical information, extremely useful.

Support

Colleague support has also been very valuable, he adds. “However, I have mostly relied on my agronomic, management and practical experience to make a success of looking after the growers I’m helping and advising. “Being involved in their farms is both fascinating and a privilege. Each farm has its own individual challenges and adapting to them plus getting to know the farms as quickly and well as possible are all rewarding parts of the job.”

He wants to offer more than an agronomy service. “I aim to help my group of farmers grow their businesses and to get involved elsewhere when the right opportunities arise. “These businesses will grow through expansion, improved efficiency and better output. Ideally I’d like to be part of the team that makes this happen, helping to find solutions to the ever-changing challenges we are presented with.”

Career-long development

Agrovista rolled out its academy in 2011. Since then it has helped 29 trainees become fully-fledged agronomists across a range of sectors including arable, vegetable, fruit, glasshouse/ornamentals and amenity. The aim is to ensure Agrovista continues to supply farmers with the most modern and technically led approach to crop production, says head of human resources Tracey Winson.

“Our academy provides comprehensive training, both on the job and in the field, supported by professional training and the development of commercial skills,” she says. “It offers much more than initial training, providing a framework of learning to help all staff continue to develop their key skills and behaviours, at the pace they choose, throughout their career.

“It’s a diverse offering, encouraging the sharing of ideas and to maximise career progression,” she adds. “As well as helping develop core skills, it can offer specialist training such as management development and accounting qualifications, and help people specialise in certain areas, for example seed or biodiversity.”

Agrovista