A different kind of hay fever

Posted September 11, 2013, by Julia Watters

With spring upon us, plenty of people are rediscovering their green thumbs. But as you tend to the small veggie patch in the back corner of your garden, consider those who look after a much bigger veggie patch … like 4600 hectares of it!

Agriculture is a broad industry that encompasses more than most people realise. From food to fibres and fuels to raw materials, it’s an industry that literally keeps us going. It’s also subject to the cruel vagaries that Mother Nature conjures up, although fields such as agronomy help to minimise risk and maximise harvest.

I spoke to Rohan Brill, a Research and Development Agronomist for the NSW Department of Primary Industries in Wagga Wagga, about why he chose a career in agriculture.

Did you always want a career in agriculture and why?

I always enjoyed the science side of farming but I struggled with much of the mundane jobs involved with farming such as shearing, going up and back on a tractor, etc. But once I got involved in agriculture after leaving school I enjoyed the challenge of it, that success is really up to you and not anyone else. The mundane jobs I now view as an essential part of the job and they also give me time to think.

Why did you choose agronomy specifically?

Agronomy is a good blend of science and practicality and it allows me to work in a field I’m interested in, especially since I still have the goal of expanding the family farm, and I’m always keen to learn. I’m lucky that while I work full-time in agronomy I still have the family farm, which keeps me in touch with the risk management decisions that farmers need to make and enables me to evaluate the usefulness of my work.

How did your university experience shape your career aspirations?

The main thing I learnt was how to find things out. I learnt the value of evidence in driving decision-making and now use that in my job. There are so many fads and gimmicks in agriculture, it’s hard to decipher what is actually good for productivity as opposed to what is a sales pitch or a ‘trend’. This ability to filter and apply information and learn from experience really sorts people out.

What do you find the most rewarding part of your job?

I like conducting research and development that leads to grower adoption and an improved practice in the farming community. For example, in my previous job at Coonamble I conducted research on the early sowing of faba beans. Growers took this research on board, which has led to more yield and more money being made from faba beans in the region. As an extra bonus there are also environmental benefits. Faba beans host bacteria that make nitrogen in the air available to the plant, so much less fertiliser is required. The development of these types of crops is crucial for farming sustainability.

What do you find the most challenging part of your job?

One of the issues is the amount of driving I do. In 2012 I did about 70,000 km total in a vehicle, which at 100 km/hour is 700 hours of driving! I also struggle with some of the protocols and systems in my work – for example, it takes a lot of time to scope and apply for research funding for projects, then at the end of a project it can be hard to measure its success, which may take a longer time to assess – but funding bodies need to see positive measured outcomes from their investment.

Do you have a good work–life balance?

My job is very flexible in terms of hours. I’m more than happy to work long days when required, then balance that out with some time off in down time. In winter I like heading to the northern hemisphere summer, which gives me time to completely switch off from my job and the farm for a few weeks at a time. I spend time working on the family farm on the weekends and do a lot of planning while exercising. I find exercise to be great for productivity and more can be achieved in fewer hours when you’re fit and healthy.

Does your work involve much travel?

I travel a lot regionally and have a great working knowledge of the back roads of NSW. I also get to travel interstate for conferences and study tours, where a lot can be learnt from different farming systems. I have just recently returned from a fascinating trip to Kazakhstan, where I spoke on crop diversification. The Kazakhs had a thirst for information and I was glad I was able to help them out, but it wasn’t just a one-way flow of information. I was able to gain a lot of knowledge from a vastly different production and social system.

What is your best advice for people looking to get into agronomy?

My best advice would be to learn how to find things out. Don’t lose sleep over how much knowledge or experience you have at a young age because that will gradually come with time. The more I learn in agronomy, the more I realise that I need and want to learn.

If you’re looking for a rewarding career in agriculture, see our range of online courses.

Julia Watters

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