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Published May 28, 2013, 09:27 AM

Expert in your field

Agronomists play a key role in area agriculture

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Jason Hanson drives down a Minnesota road on a windy mid-May morning. He sneaks quick looks at newly planted fields as he passes them.

He points and says, “This one’s wheat. That one’s either corn or sugar beets.” Tracks in the dusty soil tell him what equipment was used in planting, which allows him to deduce what crop was planted.

He stops along another field, gets out of his pickup and walks to the field’s edge. He bends down and looks at the soil.

“You can tell it was a little tacky (sticky) at planting,” he says, pointing to impressions in the soil.

He looks out into the field, a prime example of flat, fertile Red River Valley farmland. An inexperienced eye might see only uniformity. But Hanson spots minor variations that affect drainage and potential chemical needs.

“No field is exactly the same (throughout),” he says.

Though he’s too modest to say so, Hanson knows a lot about crops and soil. It’s his job to know a lot.

Hanson is a regional agronomist for WinField Solutions, a division of Land O’Lakes that offers seed, plant nutrients and plant protection products, among other things. His sprawling territory covers northern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota; Hanson works with companies there that handle WinField’s products. When dealers or their customers have questions, they call Hanson.

Another crop season is under way in the region. Hanson, like other agronomists, plays a crucial and growing role.

The ‘easy button’

Once, in a simpler time, farmers generally could keep track of most changes involving seed, fertilizer and chemicals. Today’s ever-evolving agriculture, however, requires an ever-growing wealth of knowledge that few, if any, farmers have the time or inclination to learn. That’s where Hanson and other agronomists come in.

The dictionary says agronomists apply soil and plant sciences to soil management and crop production.

The American Society of Agronomy says agronomists work with “farmers, companies and others in the ag community to implement the latest methods and tools for growing crops profitably and sustainably.”

Hanson, for his part, puts it like this: “Farms have gotten bigger. The operations are more complex. There are many moving parts. He (the farmer) needs someone who can take care of and handle some of these things, who sorts through what will work for me on my farm.”

Hanson’s territory is big — so big that he drives 40,000 to 45,000 miles annually.

“My truck is my mobile office,” he says.

Because soils and climate vary so much across his territory, he works with many crops — so many that when asked to identify them all, he resorts to counting them on his fingers. “Well, it’s over 15 crops,” he says at last.

“I don’t know everything about those crops. But you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know where the references are, where you can find out,” he says.

“Most of this, people could find on their own. But people like to push the easy button, so they call me,” he says with a smile.

He’s particularly busy when crops are just beginning to emerge from the soil. He gets so many phone calls that “my (cell phone) battery is shot by noon. I have to sit outside in my truck with the battery charger plugged in,” Hanson says.

“You get a cauliflower ear.”

A big part of the job is “telling people when you don’t know the answer — and then finding out and getting back to them,” he says.

Staying connected

Hanson, 44, grew up on a family farm near Devils Lake, N.D. He’s been an agronomist since graduating from North Dakota State University.

He and his family live in Webster, N.D., which is near Devils Lake. His brother now operates the farm on which Jason Hanson grew up.

“I have the best of both situations. I’m able to do something I love. And my children can help on the farm. I can help out,” he says.

“Helping keeps me more in tune with what’s going on in farming. When somebody talks about how the farm bill will affect farmers, it’s easier for me to relate to,” he says.

Devils Lake (the lake and the area’s largest town share the name) has been rising for years. Tens of thousands of acres of good farmland are under water, and many more are inaccessible.

“You just hate to see what’s happened,” Hanson says.

Career opportunities

Hanson wants to encourage more people, especially young ones, to enter agronomy.

“There are great opportunities, from a career viewpoint, in your local geography. You don’t have to move out of state or far from home to get a good job,” he says.

“If you’re good at math and science, if you like outdoor work, if you’re good at technology,” then agronomy is a career to consider, he says.

Chris Fedje, who just finished his junior year at North Dakota State University, is interning under Hanson this summer.

Last year, Fedje, whose family farms near Rugby, N.D., interned with WinField in a retail agronomy position.

“I liked it, and this is an opportunity to come back,” Fedje says.

Hanson, in promoting agronomy as a career, doesn’t mention financial considerations.

But some involved in agriculture note that strong demand for agronomists is pushing up their pay.

An entry-level agronomist makes an annual base salary of $42,362, according to a recently released annual survey by AgProfessional magazine.

Cropping changes

Because Hanson’s territory is so big, he has a good handle on regional crop trends. Among his observations:

• “We’re seeing more corn and more soybeans in North Dakota. Unfortunately, less wheat, too … Wheat is a good crop to put into a rotation — from a weed management perspective, from a rotation perspective, but not so much economically.”

• “Sunflowers are moving into the western part (of North Dakota). South Dakota is growing more; it probably has a better fit for that crop.”

• “Canola is being replaced by soybeans (in North Dakota). Canola is becoming more of a northern-tier crop; it also has a fit in the southwest corner of the state.”

• “Durum and barley have become primarily specialty crops.”

Challenges, satisfaction

Farmers today face both challenges and opportunities, Hanson says.

One of the biggest challenges involves glyphosate, the broad-spectrum herbicide best known under its trade name Roundup.

Widespread use of glyphosate has led to growing concern about glyphosate-resistant weeds. Experts say farmers will need to use other herbicides, in addition to glyphosate, to fight weeds.

“It’s given people some anxiety. Growers are nervous. We’re going to have to make some changes,” Hanson says.

But new tools and expanding knowledge provide opportunities, too, says Kyle Schafer, sales manager of CHS Ag Services in Crookston, Minn., which handles WinField products.

“You’ve got these higher-priced (crop) genetics. To get the most of them, it starts with (soil) fertility. You have to manage it differently,” he says.

As an industry, “We keep learning and getting better,” Schafer says.

Some in agriculture wonder if farmers will have the same enthusiasm for expensive inputs and expert agronomic advice if crop prices fall sharply — if, for example, corn sold for $4 per bushel instead of $6 per bushel.

Hanson and Schafer say high-quality inputs and advice become even more important when crop prices are poor.

“It’s easier when you have $6 corn to cover up some of these (production) mistakes, things you missed out on,” Hanson says. “When it gets tighter (financially), they show up even more.”

Agronomists, like farmers, are always looking to improve, Hanson says.

For instance, “Can I get my grower to 140 bushels (of corn per acre)? It’s a challenge, and our competiveness comes out,” he says.

Though farming is increasingly sophisticated, some things about it haven’t changed, he says.

“You drive down a field. You roll down the window and you can smell the guy (farmer) turning dirt,” he says. “You can’t beat that.”