Digital data is changing agriculture, which means it’s changing the nature of jobs in agriculture.
One of the country’s biggest farming companies, Beeswax Dyson Farming, has recently created the new role of technical agronomist.
Ed Ford, 30, explains about the fast-paced, high-tech nature of his working life.
How is your job different to a traditional agronomist’s?
I do some agronomy, but I’m also heavily involved in managing, analysing and interpreting data across all of the company’s 10,000ha in Lincolnshire.
I have some responsibilities for logistics (about 150,000t of crop passes across a weighbridge every year) and traceability (I’ve been developing our epassport scheme). Mine is a new role at Beeswax, reflecting how the industry is changing.
How did you end up in the role?
I come from a family farm in Pembrokeshire, but originally wanted to join the police force. When I applied, they said I didn’t have enough life experience, so I went travelling for four years around south-east Asia, Australia, New Zealand and central and South America.
While I was away, I decided farming was what I really wanted to do, so I went to Harper Adams, aged 22, to study farm business management. After I graduated in 2015, I started with Beeswax as a trainee farm manager, then became assistant farm manager, then got this position.
Why is data so important nowadays?
There is masses of data available these days, and you can learn a huge amount from it if you know what you’re looking at and for.
We use Gatekeeper software and every single operation is inputted into that. Every harvested load is weighed and every third load is sampled, so every ounce of grain or maize is allocated to a particular field.
We’re taking lessons from fields that are yielding well and applying them to the ones that aren’t to bring up the overall average.
Tell us about your drone experience
We have a drone and I’m out with it at least twice a week, using it for targeted crop assessments and field measuring. It means I can be more efficient with my time, but it doesn’t in itself provide all the answers – it’s just one of your tools.
What traits do you need to do the job well?
I’m technically minded and love facts and figures; I enjoy understanding why things are the way they are, so can’t get enough of David Attenborough and Brian Cox!
I’ve learned a lot about communication since I’ve been here – it’s about making sure you talk to the right people at the right time. I’ve got better at delegating and asking for help, too.
What are the advantages of working at a big company such as Beeswax Dyson Farming?
Because Beeswax is changing so quickly, you get a lot of responsibility and there are many opportunities.
The firm also has a strong culture of training and development – they put me through my Basis and Facts qualifications and are now supporting me to study my diploma.
The company is sufficiently large, progressive and influential that it can help change agriculture in ways we think are important for the whole industry – for example, by pushing strongly for electronic grain passports.
Because life is so fast-moving, it can be challenging, but I love my job.
How is technology changing the nature of jobs in farming?
Technology and data won’t ever replace farmers. It will, however, mean more skilled operators will be needed to run the kit, along with people who can understand, interpret and sense-check information against what’s happening on the ground.
At present, a lot of technology isn’t quite there in terms of its practical application, but in 10 years’ time, many of the exciting concepts people are talking about will be happening.
How do you keep up with developments in new technology?
By attending industry shows like Cereals and Agritechnica, along with trials events. I read the farming press and the internet, of course.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Young people can feel pressured to follow a particular career course, or to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, but it’s fine to keep an open mind.
If you’re not sure, don’t worry; you have your whole life ahead of you. I also can’t recommend travel enough.
What are the salaries like?
When I left Harper, typical graduate salaries were £19,000-£29,000. It’s important to consider the other benefits of a job, too, such as training and promotion opportunities. Within four years, my salary had increased by £11,000.