Meet the new generation of Plant Doctors – Part One



Plant doctors, agros, clod kickers – all nicknames given to those agri-professionals who spend a lot of time in their utes, poke a varied array of instruments into the soil and tell the farmer what to do with his crop. This may be the common perception of agronomists but Young Farming Champions are showing there is more to agronomy – and agriculture – than first meets the eye.

Coming together under Art4Agriculture’s innovative Young Farming Champions program, agronomists James Kanaley, Emma Ayliffe and Liz Lobsley are exploring the similarities and differences in their chosen careers. All have contrasting backgrounds – James is a fifth generation farmer, Emma grew up on remote pastoral stations and Liz is a self-confessed townie – and all work in diverse regions of Australia, but they have all studied at university, are bonded by the common crop of cotton and a desire to encourage the next generation of agronomists.

It is autumn and white fields of fluffy cotton await picking around Moree in northern New South Wales. James is waiting too. “There’s nothing quite like growing a crop from seed, nurturing it through to harvest and turning the land you work into a productive food (and fibre) bowl,” he says. “I remember how excited I got each harvest as a young fella as the headers fired up and burnt diesel day and night to bring the crops in.”


James is far from the family farm at Illabo in southern NSW and his journey to consulting agronomist, overseeing a range of crops including canola, barley and mung beans, has exposed him to agricultural operations across the globe. He has seen farming in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and followed the harvest through sun and snow from Texas to the Canadian border in the USA. “It was great to learn about other styles of farming but I think my trips highlighted just how adoptive, adaptive, innovative and resilient Australian farmers are,” he says. “I love working as an agronomist and working hard to produce as much as possible from every millimetre of rain that falls or every megalitre of water that is siphoned down a field during irrigation.”

The use of water for cotton irrigation is magnified in Emma’s job with Tandou Limited who launched a visionary and ambitious plan to irrigate the outback in the 1980s, and where now, in good seasons, cotton is grown on lakebeds near Menindee in western NSW. “Tandou is an amazing place to see for the first time,” Emma says. “I remember driving out 140km from Broken Hill for my interview and rounding a bend over a red sand hill to be greeted with fields of green.”


Working here as an on-farm agronomist represents the perfect combination of career and outback for Emma whose love of open spaces was spawned growing up on station country in north-west South Australia. “My job includes everything from rotation and fertiliser programs, irrigation scheduling, insect and weed management, through to driving tractors, loading seed trucks, fixing breakdowns and taking people on farm tours,” she says. However as with all farming operations climate and rainfall make the ultimate decisions and in a dry year, such as 2016, lakebed farming has been suspended and Emma has been transferred to company farms at Hay to continue cotton production.

Cotton also plays a major factor in the life of Liz who took a circuitous route to agronomy on the Darling Downs around Dalby in Queensland. “I originally thought of agriculture as dirty and, to be honest, boring,” she admits and her first university degree, and subsequent career, was in accounting. However, an interest in agriculture ignited in high school led her back to university and agronomy. “Now when I think about agriculture I think about people, innovation, passion and commitment, and within agriculture you are so much more than what your title defines. As an agronomist, on a daily basis, I assist growers makes decisions about how to nurture their crops and produce the best yields while keeping production costs low, keeping the level of chemicals used to a minimum and being friendly to the environment.”


Liz also finds her background in accounting helps her to perform business analysis and management, something she enjoys as much as partaking in an end-of-day beverage on a farmer’s verandah, building relationships in which she feels she has gained surrogate families. “Agriculture is an essential part of the economy but I also think it is an important part of our society’s way of life. We are blessed to have an agricultural industry with all if offers and it is time for a revival of sorts. It is time for everyone to peel back the layers and take a serious look at agriculture. It is not just a career choice, it is a lifestyle choice and it offers a wonderful way of life.”

James, Emma and Liz credit the Young Farming Champions program for giving them the skills to engage with the community and take on roles of responsibility within their industry. For instance James is now on the NSW Young Farmers Council. “I have got to the stage in my career where I have experience up my sleeve and some valuable knowledge. I want to help young people in agriculture to get their voices, views and opinions out there,” he says. Likewise Emma has worked with school children as part of the Menindee and Lower Darling Cotton Growers Association, and Liz is the Next Gen coordinator for the Australian Cotton Conference.

Blending their differences and similarities has also seen the three young agronomists create a Facebook page called ‘Agros – Tales from the field’ where interested people can follow not only the life cycle of cotton but of other crops such as quinoa, sunflowers and legumes. James, Emma and Liz add comments and photos as they explain agronomy in their corner of the country – offering insights into planting, pest and weed control, weather conditions, harvest and yields, to name but a few.

However perhaps the most important part of the Facebook page, as it is in their careers, is the showcasing of the everyday life of an agronomist, encouraging questions and commentary. James, Emma and Liz are showing there really is more to agronomy – and agriculture – than first meets the eye.

Reprinted from Leading Agriculture Issue 18



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