I Think Like an Agronomist
The idea of thinking like an agronomist has come up in several conversations lately. I was at a conference recently and asked how I would have answered a question asked by a farmer. I turned to the sale rep and said that I wouldn't have answered it. I would have asked more questions. The rep did an excellent job explaining their companies products and programs. They did what they have been trained to do and should be proud that they have committed themselves to representing that company professionally and with a great deal of knowledge about their products. I didn't say that to put them down or insult them. I wanted to make the point that this agronomist can be the worlds worst salesperson because my approach and mentality is different. I approach a farmer's questions differently because I have been trained to think like an agronomist, not a salesperson.
Here's what I do want to say to agricultural companies - I would think you would want someone to educate your customers to use your products efficiently and effectively, especially in the long term so they are more successful growers and represent a better example of your product. Ultimately you might sell more.
The idea of thinking like an agronomist started just as I was going into my senior year of college and took a job scouting fields for a non-profit crop improvement association. I was also living and working on my dad’s farm which meant I had time to hang out with my step-granddad. I never told my dad, but Granddad Marshall would come up every evening to the farm and helped me with chores.
I remember him pulling into the driveway in his old pickup truck, hopping out, standing there with his pipe hanging out of his mouth saying “what’ ya want me to do?”
He never yelled when I accidentally let my dad’s best hunting beagle out, he never groused when I asked him to clean horse stalls, and he never scolded me when I cussed after a steer stepped on my foot. He let me take charge and lead the way even though I wasn’t qualified or equipped too.
It turns out he was friends with a farmer that lived up the road, who retired from the soil conservation district as an agronomist.
Ed Merkel was one of the agronomists responsible for the soil surveying used in the original soil survey maps for the state of Pennsylvania. Kids these days have no idea how easy they have it with technology. I had to go to the periodical section of the library or try to get to the conservation district office before it closed for the day to use the surveys. Now that’s dating myself!
Ed spent his retirement on a farm in Central PA growing corn and hay during the day and working on his model railroad at night. He also spent time with me walking his fields. I’ll be honest, corn and hay can get boring after a while. I was young and wanted to look at canola, sorghum, and alfalfa; I thought that was where the real action was. Back then I thought there was nothing cooler than finding spittlebug in alfalfa.
I can still hear my dad and Ed telling me that alfalfa is the queen of the farm. Treat her well, and she’ll treat you well.
The crop wasn’t the point of the exercise; Ed was training me to look at the soil and the crop and start to think like an agronomist. As we walked, he asked me questions. He would ask why I picked the pattern I walked and how often I had already walked it in that given field. He asked me about not only the field I was in but the ones all around and even next door. We talked about the wildlife and what I saw in the trees. He asked me about the fence lines and what I saw along the road leading to or through the fields. He asked me what the crops looked like from every angle possible. Sometimes observing from a higher vantage point gives you a better sense of patterns starting to form. He wanted to know what color the soil was and what it smelled and how it felt. He asked me to describe the plant's condition in great detail. We talked about if any insect or disease pressure was present and where it was in the field. We talked about the varieties he was growing that year. We went through old soil tests, what field he took them in, and how that compared to other locations in and around that field. We talked about the challenges, issues that were present, and solutions. Not once did we talk about the latest trends in farming.
You could say what we did was leave no stone unturned in his fields or about his crops.
Fast forward about 20 years, and I find myself on a farm in New York working as a sales agronomist. It was my last stop of the day after being on more than ten farms, and I was hungry and tired. I planned to introduce myself see if he had any questions about the products the company I worked for supplied him with, recite my talking points and leave. I had an almost four-hour drive to my hotel; it was after 7 in the evening, that and only two more dealer visits the next day were what separated me from getting back to my family.
I didn’t want to be rude either, but the farmer seemed like he wanted to ignore me rather than talk. I headed out to where he was in the field and against my real desire to make polite and leave I started picking beans with him. Room service and my sweatpants were going to have to wait.
Then a funny thing happened, he started talking, and I went back to my days with Ed.
Suddenly I had no desire to talk to him about fertilizer programs or products, and I had no desire to recite my memorized talking points as to why and how he should use any of them. I wanted to listen and learn everything I could about his farm. We even stopped picking beans and started walking his fields. And then I started asking him all the questions Ed and I would talk about. Soil type, planting conditions, varieties, what his plants looked like, what the soil smelled and felt like.
In that very instance, I was starting to think like an agronomist again. Not as a salesman, not as a rep for an agricultural service company, not as an extension of the industry through a government agency, just as an agronomist nerding out about all things soil and plants, and specifically his farm.
I am not down on anyone I mentioned earlier. There is a time and a place to talk about the latest and greatest product that will turn you into the most famous farmer ever.
But, that is not what thinking like an agronomist is about. It's about leaving no stone unturned on your farm and, better yet...