Job profile: What’s it like to be a field trials manager?

Agricultural trials play a crucial role in testing a huge range of farm inputs or practices, including seeds, fertilisers and pesticides.

These products or practices need to be tested in a variety of locations and conditions to tease out the merits of each and provide farmers with the best knowledge and advice on which to use and how to maximise performance.

Farmers Weekly asked Sarah-Jane Osborne to give readers an insight into her role as field trials manager at AHDB, which plays a key role in assessing crop varieties for the UK’s arable growers.

See also: Job profile: What it’s like to be a plant breeder

Name: Sarah-Jane Osborne

Job title: Field trials manager

Company: AHDB

Age: 28

How would you sum up your job?

I’m part of the team that organises the trials behind the AHDB Recommended Lists for cereals and oilseeds.

The lists help farmers decide what to grow by providing information on yield and quality performance, agronomic features and the market options open to different varieties.

What does this involve day-to-day?

Everything from planning the “protocols” (we have to plan and record exactly how a crop is grown and treated so we can draw the most informative conclusions) and sourcing the seed to managing the initial tender process for trials which are carried out by external contractors, and inspecting the sites during the year.

What do you enjoy most?

In academia, some of the data that’s produced ends up sitting on a computer and never really gets used. This is a really practical role and you feel like you’re making a real difference.

The results and conclusions we come up with are relevant to farmers and it’s exciting to see the potential of new varieties and breeding methods that are boosting agricultural productivity and increasing choice for different end-uses.

What’s the downside?

The job is very seasonal and involves long hours in the summer, with a lot of travel. We need to inspect about 500 trials across the whole of the UK – so that means a lot of overnight stays away from home.

What percentage of your job is office-based?

I spend roughly 60% of my time in the office, the rest I am out in the field inspecting trials and demonstrating at variety open days.

What skills and qualifications are essential to do the job?

Ultimately, you don’t need to be a maths genius or a statistician to do this – but you do need to be able to analyse data and interpret results. Attention to detail is important as there is a lot of information – you need to keep detailed and accurate records.

Good communication skills are also useful in my role as I’m interacting with lots of different people – whether that’s farmers, external trial operators or plant breeders.

A driving licence is essential and agronomy qualifications, such as the Basis certificate in Crop Protection and pesticide application qualifications, can be extremely helpful for more practical roles.

What experience did you have before you started?

Some people come to jobs like this from a science background; others from a straight agriculture background. I studied Biology at the University of Nottingham, focusing on Plant Science for my Masters.

I then went on to study a PhD in Crop Pathology at Rothamsted Research, where I managed field trials. I loved the applied aspect of my research and I wanted to move into a role where I could help provide growers with practical, technical information.

What advice would you give to someone wanting a similar role?

It’s a very enjoyable job. You need to be able to multi-task and prioritise, though, as you’ll have a number of projects on the go. It is also important to stay independent as we deliver objective recommendations to AHDB’s levy payers. Work such as this has to be thorough and rigorous, so farmers can rely on the information we generate.

Give us an idea of salaries

They vary – but manager level roles could be between £28,000 and £35,000 depending on experience and can include benefits such as private healthcare and a car.