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Leading the field

These four agronomists move the needle forward to serve farmers.

Agronomy and Outreach

Whitney Monin’s worlds collided in the spring of 2020 on her 80-acre Kentucky farm.

Monin and her husband, Josh, purchased the land, a lifelong dream, and planned to use it as a test plot for training dealers and farmer customers in her former role as technical agronomist at Channel Seed. Monin meticulously selected the hybrids and measured the number of seeds she could plant.

However, after planting, it rained for nine straight days and Monin was forced to make a decision.

“I walked out to the fields and my husband asked, ‘If this wasn’t your field, and you were the agronomist, how would you advise the farmer to move forward?’ I said I’d recommend tearing up the fields to replant, which was a personal lesson in humility. My best-laid plans as an agronomist to have a beautiful field of corn behind my home turned into a beautiful field of soybeans, and that’s still OK,” she says.

Monin has worked across the Midwest in roles for Monsanto, Channel Seed, and now Bayer. In her career, she has spent time and energy meeting farmers where they are. Now on her own farm, she’s even closer to her customers’ experiences.

Corn and soybeans have been growing for centuries, but now farming and agronomy are evolving rapidly because of new technology and increased knowledge of soil biology. Agronomists serve as experts and trusted partners in university Extension offices, seed companies, local cooperatives, and more. Their reach extends beyond phone calls and field days.

Monin, for example, has used her social media platforms to educate farmers directly. Her Twitter feed is full of “Agronomy Break Videos” in which she answers questions about when to spray fungicides and how to identify nutrient deficiencies, plus she posts photos that track disease and pest evidence.

“A lot of people think you’re just one thing in a career,” Monin says. “Agriculture is a dynamic entity. I have the opportunity as an agronomist to be a marketer, a salesperson, and a journalist.”

Agronomy and Conservation

Ruth McCabe’s journey to become a conservation agronomist at Heartland Co-op in Iowa is an unusual one.

McCabe joined the military after high school and served as a linguist until discharged due to injury. She worked full-time while earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, taking an agronomy class on a whim.

“I was hooked,” McCabe says. “Agronomy became my major, and since then, I’ve worked as a research agronomist in the university system, a sales agronomist for a forages and cover crop seed company, and most recently as a technical agronomist for an organic seed company.”

McCabe is an avid conservationist, hunter, and outdoors enthusiast. Her work at Heartland Co-op helps to change the narrative around conventional farming from within. She supports farmers who try new or different conservation practices and helps sales agronomists learn about those practices at the same time.

You may not find a conservation agronomist at every co-op, but that’s beginning to change. McCabe’s role is in direct response to the demand from farmer customers for support in perennial crops, cover crops, forage agriculture, and even organic farming.

“There aren’t enough hours in a day for every sales agronomist, NRCS district conservationist, and farmer to sit down and evaluate their management plans to make long-term changes,” she says. “There’s a lot of mental labor that goes into adjusting a conventional management plan in a way that isn’t going to turn everything upside down.”

If you’re just getting started with conservation, she recommends calling the local cooperatives to see if they have conservation agronomists on staff. “This is our job – we can help folks ease into the topic by starting at the shallow end of the pool,” she says.

Agronomy and Research

Tammy Ott prescribes crop management practices to keep plants healthy, but in college she studied pre-pharmacy in preparation for a medical degree. She quickly found her passion in agriculture, chemistry, and research, all of which lend themselves to her role as technical agronomist for Channel Seed in Nebraska.

“In the seed industry, it’s really important for me to lead an in-field, on-farm testing network to evaluate hybrids in a variety of environments,” Ott explains.

The region of Nebraska that Ott covers has a diverse geography and growing conditions. In the past couple of years, farmers in her area have experienced massive flooding and drought. Corn rootworm infestations have robbed yield, and with many farmers planting corn on corn, they have battled stalk rot, Goss’s wilt, and other challenges.

This is why in-field education is integral to her work identifying each farmer’s goals and the management challenges they face.

“A farmer must have confidence that any new product is going to work in their area. We have to know the placement and the seeding rate at the time we sell that product,” she says. “On the flip side, it’s important for me to be involved in the forecasting process with our Channel seedsmen and field sales reps to relay feedback about what the farmer customer wants to purchase.”

Ott ensures that every time she steps onto a farm, she provides value. She listens to her customers, diagnoses their crop problems, and researches solutions.

“What keeps me grounded and excited to wake up and continue my work as an agronomist is working with farm families in rural Nebraska,” she says. “You really learn the value of hard work lacing up those boots every day and doing what it takes to get the job done as a team.” 

Agronomy and Technical Services

Amy Robak-Bruce knew a career in conservation was right for her. But during college, her FFA adviser suggested she explore agronomy and her eyes were opened to the opportunities in the field.

After graduating and serving five years as an agronomist in North Dakota, Robak-Bruce returned to her home state of Minnesota for a new role at Centra Sota Cooperative. The majority of her work is focused in central Minnesota, which has predominantly sandy soils and a variety of crops, including corn, soybeans, potatoes, and edible beans. This area is known as the home to the state’s poultry and dairy production facilities. Producers there rely upon manure applications and irrigation and are driven to implement best management practices on the landscape.

In response, Centra Sota Co-op created a new department to provide services in nutrient and pest management, irrigation water management, and soil health sustainability with carbon market offerings.

Robak-Bruce leads that department and is one of the few people in the state licensed as an NRCS Technical Service Provider, which means she can write federal government contracts for nutrient management.

Robak-Bruce developed the Centra Sota farm planning sustainability program, which currently covers about 100,000 acres. The program starts field-by-field, evaluating manure and commercial fertilizer applications; herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide use; soil samples; cover crop practices; tillage; and irrigation water management. “We look in-depth at how farmers can get the most bang for their buck for each field in production by taking a holistic approach,” she says.

Robak-Bruce and her team readily embrace cutting-edge technologies and innovative crop production methods that work in favor of the farmer. Currently, they are discussing the developing carbon markets via a pilot project with The Nature Conservancy. They are also working with new manure sensor technologies, variable-rate liquid manure applications, and implementation of in-season cover crops on farms.

The state’s conservation and sustainability efforts continue to expand and drive important conversations between farmer, local soil and water districts, and cooperatives like Centra Sota. As she says, “The need for our services has snowballed and hasn’t yet calmed down.”

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