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Help never far away in the wide-ranging agronomy network

Pinion Advisory agricultural production and adoption manager Tony Craddock.
Photo: Courtesy Tony Craddock

There is a lot more to agronomy than monitoring crops for bugs. And when you are young, ambitious and enthusiastic it can be easy to get lost in your work, especially during the busiest times of the year.

But maintaining a healthy balance between professional and personal lives is essential for career longevity and to prevent burnout.

It is also vital to develop and maintain networks of people – mentors and peers within and outside the industry – who can provide support and advice when needed.

These are the main messages from both established agronomists and relative newcomers who are successfully carving out a career in the field.

Platinum Ag Services senior agronomist Matt Howell thought he knew what he was in for when he finished his Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of Adelaide in 2008.

Mr Howell recalls tagging along with his father, Mick, who was an agronomist with IAMA on the Eyre Peninsula in the 1990s before the company merged with Wesfarmers Dalgety.

“I enjoyed what he did and decided this was a good way for me to stay involved in agriculture,” he says. “With no family farm to go home to, it seemed like a good option.”

After a year as a graduate agronomist at Landmark Meningie in South Australia, he moved to Platinum Ag where he works with grain growers, dairy farmers and producers of irrigated summer crops.

Something that surprised Mr Howell was how quickly and deeply involved he became in the businesses of clients.

“They’ll ask your opinion on grain marketing or fertiliser purchasing and everything in between,” he says.

“Basically, you end up being their sounding board and bullshit detector. You’re there to do the best thing for their business and be that second set of eyes and offer opinions.”

Lure of job security

Angus Brissenden worked on a farm before joining Elders at Murray Bridge in South Australia, after he was accepted into the company’s graduate program two years ago.

Despite growing up in Adelaide with no farming background, he was drawn to agronomy by an interest in science and the lure of plentiful jobs in the sector.

“I walked into an agricultural science seminar at the University of Adelaide open day and the opening statement by the head of the ag science school was that there are five jobs for every graduate, which I thought was very appealing,” he says.

“I’ve always wanted to do a job that I thought was meaningful. I had an interest in food security throughout high school and thought what better way to have a positive influence than by helping grow food?”

Challenges have included learning the language – including colloquialisms – and ‘culture’ of agriculture.

But Mr Brissenden says the team at Elders has been extremely supportive and he has found clients are always willing to answer questions about machinery and how they run their operations.

“In the middle of the season, you’re certainly run off your feet,” he says.

“But you do get quite a gentle period over summer and a chance to catch your breath and reflect, which I actually quite enjoy.”

Supporting big businesses

Award-winning Queensland agronomist Liz Lobsey came to her career in a roundabout manner.

With jobs in short supply as the Millennium Drought took hold across eastern Australia, Ms Lobsey completed a Bachelor of Business, Accounting and Agribusiness and worked as an accountant and farm office manager before joining Meteora Agronomic Consulting on the Darling Downs in 2011.

“I was grateful for those experiences because they helped me understand the business of farming,” she says.

“I also think about things differently, such as when decisions are being made about whether to spray or not; it’s like ... there is a business here that has to be run. And they are big businesses, they’re not little businesses at all. Sometimes it can be hard for newcomers to comprehend how much money is actually involved with some of the decisions that have to be made.”

Working as an independent, Ms Lobsey says one of her main challenges as a rookie was the lack of access to ready-made networks and connecting with other like-minded people.

She addressed this by becoming actively involved with Crop Consultants Australia, an association providing professional development and networking opportunities for its more than 300 members.

“I hate the saying, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, but it is so very, very true,” she says.

“You do need all your contacts and your networks are very important, but they need to include people outside those you went to uni with ... If I was to do it again, I would probably push a bit harder to try and form my network earlier.”

Industry involvement

Charlie Wells grew up in cotton country at Moree, New South Wales, and earned pocket money from digging holes and driving tractors on the farm of his grandfather, Reg, and labouring on the farm where his father, Gavin, worked.

After a gap year, he studied a dual degree in agribusiness and agricultural science at the University of Queensland and worked as a crop scout during holidays for B&W Rural at Moree.

agronomist Charlie wellsCharlie Wells and Reggie the dog at Hillston, NSW. Photo: Supplied

Mr Wells joined Customised Farm Management at its Griffith office after graduating in 2020, and works across grains, cotton, livestock and irrigated tree crops.

“I decided the challenge of moving to Griffith was the right fit at the time,” he says. “I liked the idea of being somewhere completely new and different. However, I was fortunate to have some terrific mentors through B&W and they really helped me identify my interests in ag.”

Mr Wells says it has taken him about two full seasons to settle in and become more competent and confident, enabling him to do more forward planning that allows him to schedule breaks and visits to family in Brisbane and Moree.

He joined the board of Crop Consultants Australia last year and is involved with events, such as the Growing Connections Field Walks, held in partnership with GRDC and the Cotton RDC.

The walks, held last year near Hillston in western NSW and Oakey in Queensland, are designed to build confidence in students and early career professionals and provide access to industry experts, researchers and existing networks.

Mentors have been important to Mr Wells and he looks forward to coordinating more activities that bring young heads and older heads together, as well as being a mentor in future.

“You need good people around and I’ve been lucky to have a few mentors over the years,” he says.

“They’ve all reinforced the importance of having a positive work-life balance to avoid burnout. Having that guidance early in your career is extremely valuable.”

Building a client base

Frontier Farming Systems research agronomist Michael Moodie has worked in research, development and extension for almost 20 years.

After three years with the Department of Agriculture at Irymple, as part of the wider Victorian Mallee grains team led by Rob Sonogan, he started his own business as a consultant agronomist.

Mr Moodie’s first contract was with Mallee Sustainable Farming and he worked hard to build up a list of clients.

“I’ve always prided myself on a strong work ethic and, particularly in the early days, I wouldn’t actually discourage people from working harder than they need to get ahead,” he says.

I think that’s what you need to do to establish yourself. The only way to learn a new job is to do the new job. You’ve got to develop the experience from somewhere.

Mr Moodie says he found the greater challenges – once the business was established – came from winning more projects at the same time as his young family was growing and needed more of his attention.

As a research agronomist, Mr Moodie says there are limited quiet periods during the year. In between time-critical operations such as sowing, harvesting and spraying research trials, there are reports and funding applications to be written, as well as new projects to start and extension activities to manage.

“You’ve got to be prepared to do those long days when it’s required, but in a way that it doesn’t consume your life,” he says.

Mr Moodie considers himself both lucky and unlucky to have landed in Mildura in 2005 as a fresh-faced graduate with no one else from his team in the office.

“On one hand, it was good because you’re forced to go out there, network and find out how to do stuff,” he recalls.

“But on the other side, there’s a lot of trial and error that I’ve had to do.”

Last year, Mr Moodie received the GRDC Seed of Light award in recognition of his outstanding contribution, dedication and commitment to communicating research outcomes to people working in the grains industry.

One of the major changes he’s noticed during the past decade has been the requirement for all agronomists to more thoroughly understand the impact of farm logistics and timeliness of operations.

“If you’re recommending something that’s going to work against that, it’s doomed to fail, because farmers are just not going to do it,” he says. “If it can’t be done on a large scale quickly and cost-effectively, it’s of no value to their business.”

Sharing the workload

Pinion Advisory agricultural production and adoption manager Tony Craddock, who has been an agronomic consultant for more than 25 years, describes the seasonal nature of broadacre agronomy as a “lumpy workflow”.

“It can get quite intense at certain times during the growing season, particularly if there’s adverse events like frost or a very wet spring – and that increases the workload on people,” he says.

With a team of five dryland agronomists, Mr Craddock says sharing of the workload – rather than individuals shouldering the burden – is encouraged. So is taking leave and having interests outside work, such as sport or a hobby.

“It’s really important to take leave,” he says. “It sounds obvious, but we’re often high achievers and hard workers and we can let work or our duty to our clients take priority over actually taking some time out to recharge the batteries. Also, it’s really important to have respected peers or co-workers that you can use as a sounding board when things are getting intense.”

Mr Craddock says he is fortunate to be involved with the South Australian Independent Consultants group, whose 18 members act as a sounding board and peer learning and discussion group.

“Within that group there are individuals who can assist if we’re feeling under pressure with the work that we do, and looking at ways that we can work through it,” he says.

“Often there are other people within the group who are feeling the same way and a problem shared ... goes a long way to coming up with a solution.

Apart from workload challenges, Mr Craddock says being an agronomy consultant is a fantastic career.

“Working closely with a great group of innovative growers, making a real difference to their productivity and profitability, and watching their businesses grow over time – you can’t beat it,” he says.

Support in the tough times

People experiencing distress are always just one conversation away from seeing things differently or feeling better, and it is no different for agronomists and growers.

Pinion Advisory, among Australia’s biggest private agricultural consulting companies, broke new ground in 2022 by becoming one of the first businesses of its type to employ a performance coach to support clients as well as staff.

It is a step up from the previous employee assistance program, which relied on external counsellors to provide confidential wellbeing services to staff.

adviser Bron stedallPinion Advisory people development consultant Bron Stedall. Photo: Courtesy Bron Stedall

Agricultural production and adoption manager Tony Craddock says the formation of Pinion in July 2020 from the merger of Rural Directions, Macquarie Franklin and Sunraysia Environmental – and later HydroPlan – took the workforce to 100 people and gave them the critical mass they needed.

“We have a high degree of care not only for our own staff, but also our clients,” he says.

“We’ve been working with some of our clients for more than 25 years, and we’ve developed a very trusted and caring relationship. So to extend those services out to our clients, I think, is pretty important.”

Pinion Advisory people development consultant Bron Stedall has coached and facilitated team meetings for staff, written about mental health and given presentations on decision-making, leadership and conflict resolution to clients in person and online.

She aims to educate people about behaviour through discussions that highlight the biological, psychological and social drivers behind thoughts and actions. “Our mindset, our perspective, is everything,” she says.

“We are always one conversation away from feeling really different or from feeling better from having that slight shift in perspective ... so we mustn’t be scared to have that conversation.”

That includes supporting clients with strained relationships to constructively undertake succession planning, as well as discussions about long-held beliefs and values, such as a strong work ethic, and assessing whether they’re helpful or not.

“If your relationships are falling apart, because you never make time for anybody else, or you never take a holiday or your health is suffering, then it’s worth looking at the impact of those values, so you can redefine what’s truly important and create more balance,” she says.

Tips for a successful career in agronomy

Stay curious: “Be prepared to ask a lot of questions of people you know and others you don’t. You’re really only ever a call away from getting help from anyone, including clients. In agriculture, people are really willing to give you a hand.” – Angus Brissenden

“Listen to what people with more experience tell you because they’re telling you for a reason. Don’t just have a crack if you’re not sure about something because the ramifications can be huge and expensive.” – Liz Lobsey

People: “You can meet a lot of people, but it’s up to you to maintain those relationships. It’s important to have your network but it’s even more important to give back to your network.” – Matt Howell

“Psychology is actually 90 per cent of the job. You can’t just do the checking and deliver the message and off they go. You have to have a relationship with the farmer and be able to have difficult conversations.” – Liz Lobsey

“Don’t rely solely on colleagues for advice or support. Broaden your networks so you’re exposed to other people who might have different or new ideas, and offer help instead of waiting for people to ask.” – Michael Moodie

“If you need guidance, pick up the phone, make the most of talking to people at conferences and association events, and call people. Don’t feel like you’re annoying them. Keep showing up. After a little while it gets a lot easier.” – Charlie Wells

Perspective: “If you’re struggling, professionally or personally, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your networks or a counsellor. Very often a problem shared goes a long way to coming up with a solution.” – Tony Craddock

Managing expectations: “Many growers work seven days a week and will call when they have a question, day or night. If you’re on a day off or you have a young family you need to make time for, don’t answer the phone.” – Matt Howell

Workload: “Facing a wall of work? To prevent overwhelm, I keep a tally of progress with my planning sessions or client visits. It helps me see that I’m achieving something and I’m not chasing my tail.” – Tony Craddock

Big picture: “Knowing about soils, plant phenology and chemical use is not enough. You also need to understand how it fits into the bigger picture, particularly the logistical challenges.” – Michael Moodie

Taking a break: “Holidays should be at least two weeks long because it can take a week to switch off. Put a message on your phone letting clients know when you’ll be back.” – Matt Howell

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