Q&A with a precision agronomist
Precision Agronomist CCA-ON, 4R NMS, FS PARTNERS
B.Sc. (Agr.) Crop, Horticultural and Turfgrass Sciences, 2012; M.Sc. Plant Agriculture, 2014
Meagan Griffiths works in precision agriculture. It’s not a career she planned on pursuing, but she’s found a fit for her interests and skillset in this dynamic part of the sector. She shares more about her current role and tips for current students who are staring off their careers.
First off, what is precision agronomy?
To me, as a retail agronomist, precision agronomy is maximizing performance by capturing and utilizing data and technology. Whether it’s utilizing GPS systems and geo-referenced satellite or drone imagery, soil testing by management zone, or utilizing variable rate equipment for crop input applications. Anything that identifies spatial variability within a field and can be used to influence or execute management decisions.
One thing that has been a big focus for me this past year and ties nicely into precision ag, is the 4R’s of nutrient stewardship. The 4R initiative focuses on guiding farmers and farm retailers to use the right source of crop nutrients, at the right rate and time, in the right place. Farms are variable in many ways such as topography, soil type, nutrient and organic matter distribution, drainage, etc. Technology is empowering us to make better decisions to manage this variability.
Tell us more about your role.
I work for FS PARTNERS, the Canadian retail division of GROWMARK. We are a full-service retail co-op for farmers, providing agronomic services, custom application, crop protection products and crop nutrients. There are five main agronomy hub locations throughout Ontario, from Elmvale/Alliston to Delhi. I work out of the Ayr and Delhi locations as part of the Precision Agronomy team, and a main part of my role is to oversee our crop scouting program. This involves training and guiding university students who are my eyes in the fields and following up with reports that come from their findings and the making recommendations to our customers. In the off-season, I also deal with yield data cleanup, zone management, soil sampling and create variable rate prescriptions for inputs such as lime, seed and fertilizer. I also play a support role for sales staff in agronomic recommendations, the 4R Retail Certification Program and the Climate FieldView platform.
How do you keep up-to-date on industry trends?
As a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), this is something that has felt natural to me since getting my designation in 2017. To keep in good standing with the CCA, members must complete 40 hours of continuing education every two years. This means going to industry conferences and information days, where you get all the newest information you can handle. One of the things I love most about the ag industry is that we are always learning! My employers have been very supportive of me to obtain my CCA designation and attend every event/opportunity that I have felt would benefit me. I think this is consistent across the industry in agronomy/sales.
Why were you drawn to study agriculture in university?
I actually didn’t start out my undergrad degree in agriculture! I started in commerce. In high school, I didn’t think I was good enough at sciences and took the business route. But when I got to U of G, I made a diverse group of friends in residence and I took lots of electives and joined school clubs (including the horticulture club, just purely out of interest). I decided that my second-year classes coming up were not as interesting as other classes I could take in a different stream. After lots of thought (and anxiety), I decided to step out of my comfort zone and switch to a science program. I wasn’t from a farm, and knew very little about agriculture, but I was so interested in what I had learned in my electives and people I had met, that I decided to take the leap. Best decision I ever made! Just goes to show how important it is to diversify what you do in your university years. Be open to new opportunities and you may be surprised where they lead you.
When you started at U of G, was “precision agronomist” a career you were aware of?
Definitely not. Especially when I was in the commerce stream and wasn’t even considering that agriculture had something to offer in terms of careers. Even when I graduated my undergrad and went into my masters degree, I didn’t think about “precision agronomy” as a career option. Precision ag wasn’t something that was really talked about much at the time. I think within the past 5 to 10 years is when it started expanding in terms of positions available, and now it seems exponential. It’s fun, when you get out into the industry, to see what everyone is doing. It gives you new things to work towards.
Why did you decide to do your master's? How did it help you?
I decided to do my M.Sc. in Plant Agriculture because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to end up. I was leaning towards research, and didn’t have much industry experience in agronomy, so I decided that it may be a good way to get a feel for research and get a little more experience and network building. I think it did just that. I made a new network of great and diverse people, and it was a lot of fun. It made me realize that maybe research wasn’t for me. But it also made me better at thinking critically, looking at and interpreting data (which are skills I use daily in my role) and rounding out my perspective on Ontario agriculture. I think that having a M.Sc. gave me a bit of a competitive edge when applying for an agronomist position out of university too.
What advice would you give to graduating students on job hunting?
I think that the most logical place to start, if you have worked in the industry during the summers and had a good experience, is to reach out to your past employers. Ask them out for coffee! Keeping in touch with them, if you have a good relationship, is key! They can be useful as a sort of mentor if you are interested in the field they work in, as well as tell you about opportunities that are coming up. If you are interested in another sector of agriculture, you could always ask them if they know anyone who may be able to point you in the right direction. Hiring managers in Ontario agriculture are always looking for good people. So, use any leverage you have with someone who knows you are good. I like to think that most past employers would be happy to help you out in whatever way they can!
If this leads you to a dead end, don’t get discouraged. Keep an eye on online postings, and reach out to local businesses that you have interest in. If you do your research, and know you want to work with them, ag businesses love to hire local, and sometimes will even create a position if they find someone who is passionate and would make a great fit to their team.
Otherwise, keep your ear to the ground, and use your network. It also helps to lead with a definitive idea of what you want to be doing. If you know you want to do sales, be passionate about it. If you want to do research, take any experience you can get, and keep pursing it. Employers like to hear that you are sure you want to be in the position you are applying for.