The farmer's friend: An agronomist's perspective

The Cotswolds are world famous for their fields and farmyards but not many of the people who live here know exactly how much work, research and training goes into their preservation. We talk to Oliver Fairweather about his role as an agronomist and the challenges facing our farmers in the future.

What does an agronomist do - and what is your relationship with our farmers?

Not many people would know the answer to that, or know that the job even exists. There is no set job description as the needs of my customers change every year. Personally, I look after 32 agronomy farmer customers. I advise them on what to grow, where and how. I walk all of their crops at least once a fortnight to see how they are growing and what weeds, pests and diseases are present throughout the growing season. I then give technical advice on how to manage these problems. I have to make sure that I keep the farmers up to date - technically compliant with all legislation, maintaining accurate records so that all of their produce reaches the required standards. As a result of my path into agronomy, I also get involved with yearly budgets, cash flow, various management plans and legislative paperwork.

I suppose the overall aim of an agronomist is to make sure that my customers’ farms run as profitably as they can in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

What’s the difference between GM farming and conventional farming?

Conventional farming has been carried out for many decades, working within tight legislative controls and following the principles of “Integrated Crop Management”. This means employing as many non-chemical methods to grow crops as is practically possible, but also using targeted crop protection chemicals if, and when, needed. Farmers are permitted to apply products that have been rigorously tested and shown to be safe to the environment and our health, then approved for use on crops. These are mainly used to manage weeds, pests and diseases that can drastically limit yield and, as a result, food production. GM farming isn’t approved within the UK. However, it is a process using gene technology with the aim of improving crop outputs - for example, the ability to make a crop tolerant to drought by placing a gene into the plant’s breeding. Food crops could then be grown in areas of the world where, currently normal crop would fail to survive in that climate.

So, what exactly is a Research & Development Site?

This would be one of our trials sites. We place trials that result from work we have done at our major ‘technology centres’, knowing they will be of significant relevance to farmers in their local area, on a similar soil type to that which they farm. All the trials we conduct are with products that have already been fully approved – we are looking how to help our customers get the best results from their use.

A vast amount of trials go on behind the scenes.

How much science goes on behind the scenes?

Many companies nationwide carry out research yearly. As a company, Agrii plant in excess of 50,000 plot trials per year, in order to trial various factors such as varieties of crop, new establishment techniques and growing systems. This helps us to gain the knowledge and expertise that we pass on to our customers. Research is vital so that our customers are safe in the knowledge that all our decisions are based on a wealth of trials experience carried out over a number of years, confident that we are giving them the most technically correct and up-to-date advice.

How vital is the care of our soil to our wellbeing, overall?

We obviously need a healthy soil to help maintain a healthy local environment. Not just for us but for insects, animals and general wildlife. Everyone likes looking out at verges and seeing wild flowers. Not only are they nice to look at but as an example they also provide food for insects that have vital roles within other life cycles, such as pollination of plants.

Growing food or growing fuel – what’s taking priority?

Food is definitely taking a priority as the world population is increasing at such a substantial rate. However, the interest in growing crops for energy is also increasing, as the growing population has to be able to travel, heat their homes, etc. In my opinion, though, food production has to be our number one goal.

What impact has the growth of foreign economies, like those of China and India, had on our local farmers?

As these economies grow, the population also grows. As these economies improve, they want the finer things in life - including diet. Our local farmers supply into world as well as local markets.

More demand usually determines a higher price - beneficial if these countries want to source from the UK. However, long term, I fear their economies are a concern because our current food production levels are not increasing equally to population. In turn, this could lead to market supply shortfalls and therefore increased food prices. Worse still, it will most likely lead to more malnutrition within the poorer areas of the world.

How does England’s erratic weather affect the work of an agronomist?

Firstly no two years are the same. Last year [2012] we had a very dry spring, resulting in very little disease pressure, so farmers benefited from higher yields as a whole. This year, however, we have had much wetter conditions, resulting in a very high disease pressure. This has meant that farmers have had a more expensive year, in terms of crop inputs, to manage this disease and the weeks of rain prior to harvest will produce significantly reduced yields compared with last year. To sum it up, the weather doesn’t change what we do personally.

We are still walking fields regularly come rain or shine. However, the weather has a major impact on farmer’s expenditure and income that is out of their control but ultimately affects their profitability of their business.

Is there an increasing need for the modern farmer to keep up to date with developments?

New technologies aiming to improve farm outputs come along on a yearly basis; they have to keep coming in order to meet future food demand. This is one of the reasons Agrii invests so much into research and development. Many farmers leave it up to their agronomist to help them comply with legislation and do what is in the best interests of the farm business. However, when on farm we always try to make farmers aware of what and why we are doing things.

How will farmers begin to balance the need to feed more mouths with the need to reduce? their impact on the environment – all the while, battling climate change and unfavourable markets?

It is going to become a harder and harder task, especially the constant change in legislation that is targeted towards protecting the environment, forcing farmers to farm as sustainably as possible.

A lot of farmers go further and voluntarily participate in environmental schemes to help further increase bio-diversity and wildlife.

Conversely, manufacturers and suppliers into the agricultural industry - from machinery manufactures to haulage companies - have to work at reducing their carbon footprint of their businesses and their products. It doesn’t just stop with the farmer. These constraints will become more and more important as, increasingly, we will need to put crops on all the available land we can, in order to produce enough food for the world.

The UK is presently looking to encourage more young people into the food industries. What was your route into your profession?

I studied a National Diploma in agriculture at Moreton Morrell before doing a Higher National Diploma and degree in agriculture and land management at Hartpury. I worked on farms during school holidays and then on placements from the age of sixteen and, upon leaving university, I secured a job as a farm manager. From there, I left to work for Agrii as an agronomist.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of Cotswold Homes.