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Rise of the Agronomist – Wayback Wednesday

From Farming Smarter, Fall 2016
By Madeleine Baerg

Farming Smarter saw about 60 people come to Alberta Wheat Day held in conjunction with the Alberta Wheat Commission.
Photo by: Farming Smarter

Since day one, Farming Smarter’s operating mandate and unrelenting pursuit has been to support southern Alberta’s agricultural producers. Every applied research trial is done with primary producers’ priorities in mind; every extension event is designed around primary producers’ needs.

Increasingly, however, the faces standing around Farming Smarter research plots on field school days and the voices chiming in on Farming Smarter forums and discussions are not primary producers. Rather, they are farm advisors and agronomists.

And though the change is a departure from Farming Smarter’s expectations and stated operating goals, it’s actually a good thing for Farming Smarter and – even more importantly – primary producers too.

“As farms gets bigger and more complex, there’s more and more demand for farm advisors. And maybe not surprisingly, those farm advisors come to us to get updated on the latest and greatest in applied research,” says Ken Coles, Farming Smarter’s executive director.

“To be honest, we hadn’t really given it much thought until we noticed the trend. But it makes sense. We’re trying to serve the most progressive, scientifically-minded producers. But, while there are a lot of great and really innovative farmers out there, not very many actually want to be on the bleeding edge of innovation. But farm advisors, they need to be up on what’s new and noteworthy in order to be a good resource to their clients.”

Even Farming Smarter’s Medicine Hat field day saw increased numbers in 2016. Here Lloyd van eeden Petersman talks about grain corn agronomy.

At the end of the day, the winner is the farmer whether that farmer learns from and is supported by Farming Smarter firsthand, or whether Farming Smarter educates the advisor who in turn directly works with producers. That said, the shift does impact how Farming Smarter does its business and what it offers in terms of extension.

“The reality is that, as an organization, we haven’t quite figured out yet how we can best serve farmers and farm advisors. We’ve noticed a trend that will ultimately have implications – probably both policy implications and operational implications – on our business. At this point, we want to reach out and hear from people what they want. It will be up to our Board and our members to determine what we do with this shift.”

Part of the increase in the number of farm advisor attending Farming Smarter events is a simple numbers game: the total number of farm advisors is increasingly very quickly.

“Farming is very sophisticated now, so the need for farm advisors has been growing and growing,” says Liz Robertson, executive director of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors. “Our association has been growing at more than 15 per cent each year, and this year we expect even bigger growth than that.”

So, what do Farm advisors need?

“Professionals, farm advisors included, often charge by the hour. If they are going to something that takes them away from their office, it has to add to their business and add to their particular toolbox of services they offer their clients,” says Robertson. “They’d see value in extension and learning opportunities where they can gain the latest developments in the industry.”

And, in an industry that is consistently divisive and siloed, there’s a lot to be said for collaboration. Farm advisors – and individual primary producers too – can benefit enormously from being in the same place at the same time as other forward thinking agriculture experts. After all, the more diversity of experience and knowledge among those you rub shoulders with, the more benefits you can gain for your business.

“There is so much to learn from just talking to each other. In-person networking with other people working in agriculture is so important to individuals and to the health of the whole industry,” says Robertson. “The thing about networks is they are dynamic and constantly changing. You can never have too big a network.”

While Coles supports farm advisors’ interest in Farming Smarter’s work, he acknowledges one note of caution. More and more companies are interested in Farming Smarters’ research and extension, and events are now regularly attended by corporate groups for corporate training purposes. This he supports, because it ultimately filters down to more and better information going to producers. What he does not support is the possibility that companies could take over the policy development and operational direction of Farming Smarter.

“We’re not just seeing private consultants coming to our events, we’ve got big companies who use our events as field school training for a whole fleet of their agronomists. That has serious implications at a governance level and purposeful level. If farmers aren’t careful the companies could take over, just by positioning their people to step into our board positions. It’s something we’re really aware of, because that wouldn’t necessarily be in the best interests of the producer.”