A decade of poor returns in arable farming during the mid 1990s to 2000s, and an often negative media image of farming, combined to make agronomy a less than attractive career.
This might not be the case any more as agriculture and its associated industries are of increasing interest to a new generation of university leavers.
“Agronomy is back on graduate’s radars,” says Sarah Cowlrick, chief executive officer of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants.
“Partly because of a political agenda, there is increasing interest in feeding a growing population,” she says.
“We are finding that graduates are starting to look at agronomy as a career with real promise.”
What can a career in agronomy offer graduates?
For many, a career in agronomy offers the chance to spend a significant amount of time outdoors working with farmers. This can be up to 80-90% of their time during busy periods.
Much of this time is spent crop walking, surveying fields to identify the need for sprays, fertilisers and other nutrients.
It is an integral part of the role, with agronomists advising on several thousand hectares in a year.
A range of responsibilities means an agronomist can expect to be constantly challenged to identify issues in crops as well as advising growers on strategies to improve yields, understand and advise on new machinery, and help plan rotations.
For some this can include managing significant budgets, requiring a sound business understanding and close working relationship with growers.
Increasingly agronomists are also required to understand the impact of government legislation and the requirements of environmental schemes.
A graduate agronomist can hope to earn between £15,000-24,000 as a starting salary, depending on experience. Salaries may also rise during the training period.
Depending on the graduate programme, a car or car allowance might also be provided.
A fully qualified agronomist can earn a significantly higher salary which will often be performance linked, and in some cases dependant on the size of client base.
What do you need to become an agronomist?
Graduate schemes often require degrees with a base in science or agriculture; a 2:1 or higher is also a pre-requisite for some courses.
A farming background can also be helpful, though not essential.
“Graduates should have an interest in science and environmental issues,” says Mrs Cowlrick.
“It’s also important that you enjoy working with people and should have a keen interest in applying science to practical feed and food production issues.”
A BASIS certificate in crop protection is a compulsory requirement to sell or market pesticides and is essential for agronomists. Most graduate schemes will include this as part of the training package.
New entrants to agronomy are allowed three years to work alongside already qualified staff before they are required to take their BASIS examination.
The BASIS certificate comprises written tests, weed identification tests and three in-field interviews covering questions on storage and cropping.
Candidates must also pass a panel interview and complete an original research project.
A FACTS (fertiliser adviser certification and training scheme) qualification might also be included in a graduate training programme. This is a similar length programme which ensures the quality of the fertiliser advice an agronomist can offer.
Both require a significant time investment and study. BASIS training will require a minimum of 10 to 20 days formal training, depending on experience, which is often split up over several weeks.
Practical experience is essential to pass both qualifications and a BASIS diploma may be a next step having passed the initial certificate.
There are a number of schemes open to graduates, some of the more popular options are outlined below.
You will need:
A good degree in a relevant subject, an outgoing and commercial attitude, an ability to think on your feet
Duration: Two years
Qualifications: on finishing: BASIS and FACTS
Applications: ongoing, with an intake in October
Go to: The Adas website
Tom Clamp – MDS trainee
Tom Clamp left Nottingham University with a 2:1 in Biology and Computer Science, but found his lack of agricultural background meant he struggled to find graduate level agronomy jobs.
“Quite often I would get to the interview stage, but then find I was limited by my lack of experience,” says Mr Clamp.
“When MDS offered me the option of an agronomy course, I said yes straight away. The wide variety of placements and experiences has been fantastic,” he says.
Mr Clamp has been seconded to Flavourfresh, PepsiCo and pgro; his next secondment will be working with Syngenta. He has filled a number of roles within these companies including, junior management positions, field trials and laboratory studies.
He expects that on finishing the programme which includes FACTS and BASIS training he will be ideally placed to enter full-time employment as an agronomist.
“I have a passion for agronomy and really think it’s a career that has a lot to offer me.”
Grace Davison – independent agronomist
“Although my course wasn’t based in agriculture I knew I wanted to be involved in British farming,” says Grace Davison.
Initially though she wasn’t aware that agronomy was a career opportunity that was open to her.
“It wasn’t until after consulting friends and family that I decided to look into agronomy.
“Being outside was a definite attraction; having the opportunity to work with farmers was also a draw,” she adds.
She now works for independent agronomists Hampshire Arable Systems. “Being independent means I am not under any pressure to meet sales targets or recommend any products,” she says.
Miss Davison advises graduates looking for a career in agronomy that they can benefit from gaining work experience with an existing agronomist, especially if they don’t have an agricultural background.
“I would hope in five years’ time I will have built a substantial customer base for myself,” she adds.
You will need
Ideally, applicants will be educated to degree level, though not essential. Applicants must demonstrate personal drive and energy, be self-motivated and commercially aware
Pay £19,000 minimum, higher depending on experience
Duration: Two years
Qualifications on finishing: BASIS and FACTS
Applications: Ongoing, with an intake in October
Visit the Agrivista website