Crop Researcher

Kelly, 29, spent a brief stint on a farm in Saskatchewan as a child, so when she rediscovered agriculture in her B.Sc. in Agriculture program at Macdonald Campus of McGill University, it was like coming back to her roots. Kelly completed an M.Sc. in horticulture at Macdonald Campus. Her thesis involved developing a hydroponic production system for a carnivorous medicinal herb. She then worked as an agrologist for two years with an agro-environmental conservation club in Québec, during which time she helped farmers improve their soil and crop fertility management practices. Next, she worked for a year with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as an extension and scientific writer. Kelly now works as a vegetable crop researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in New Brunswick. She studies environmentally and economically sustainable vegetable production systems.

Stephanie: What made you decide to become a crop researcher? How did you become a crop researcher?
When I was finishing high school, I didn’t know what I should do with my life. My parents said, “try to find something you’ll enjoy doing for the next thirty-five years and that makes decent money.” I still couldn’t think of anything. So I spent time in the guidance counsellor’s office looking at university calendars. None of the programs appealed to me, until I found a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree program at Macdonald Campus of McGill University. What attracted me was a course on dairy production. I thought, “Great! A degree in making cheese and ice cream!” So I enrolled for a B.Sc. (Agr). While I was there, I discovered that dairy production means learning about cows. I love animals, but I also discovered that a person who loves animals is better off studying plants. So I took a Plant Science major. Being the kind of person who dislikes lectures, I took as many "special topics" courses as I could. These are hands-on projects you do under the supervision of a professor. I took quite a few in plant pathology, and I fell in love with fungi.

I was also lucky enough to get summer student jobs at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) working for a plant pathologist and plant physiologist, so I learned a lot about field and lab work. I got a couple of other summer jobs working on research projects with the University, and at the end of my degree, I had decided I wanted to be a researcher. So I did a Master of Science degree in horticulture. But I didn’t become a crop researcher right away after that. I became an agrologist for a few years, helping farmers manage their crops and soil in an environmentally friendly way. I wanted to be in research, but jobs are hard to find. Eventually I got back on with AAFC, writing extension publications. From there, I applied for a job as a crop researcher. It just happened that my skills and education fit. So here I am. And I feel lucky to be where I am. In the government, most of the crop researchers have PhDs. In industry it is easier to get work in research with a master's degree.

Stephanie: What does a crop researcher do?
The job varies a bit, depending whether you work for the public service or private industry. A private company, for example, may have a set budget and work plan for the researcher. In my case, I work for the government. I have to develop a research program on vegetable crops that addresses the research priorities set by the department (such as environment, food safety etc.) and addresses the needs of farmers and industry. I think up research projects, define objectives, design experiments to address the objectives, carry out the experiments, collect data and results and interpret the results in publications.

I cooperate with other researchers, farmers and industry members. This involves attending meetings to determine with farmers and industry their research priorities, and maintaining good working relationships. Sometimes a research project will be carried out at a farm site. In these cases, I have to explain the project to the farmer, set it up with him and work with him all summer to make sure it all goes well.

I attend grower conferences and scientific conferences where I learn about other researchers’ work and present my own. Research takes a lot of manpower, so I supervise a small team, including a technician and summer field workers. I also have to secure funding for some of my projects. To do this, I seek collaborators who contribute time, energy and sometimes money. We write a proposal and send it to funding programs. If we receive approval, the project goes ahead, and it means I am responsible for budgeting, spending, hiring extra workers and making sure that all of the finances add up at the end.

Stephanie: What do you like about your job?
I have a high level of autonomy. I am able to make many decisions about what I choose to study. I’m particularly interested in integrated pest management and soil fertility. I have the leeway to pursue these subjects in the context of vegetable crop production.

I also like the fact that in the summer, I spend a lot of my time outside working on the experiments. In the winter, when it’s cold outside, I’m inside working on more of the paperwork side of it.

I like the fact that my work is meaningful. My research is leading to better crop production systems for farmers. These systems use pesticides and fertilizers more efficiently, which saves farmers money and reduces pollution. I’m working on systems that will let farmers grow crops here that they haven’t been able to grow here before, and this will eventually improve the vitality of the industry. I’m working on projects that will allow us to better understand the effects of organic production on soil health.

I love working with soil, and insects, moulds and weeds. I love standing in a field and seeing the crops growing. I love the fact that I farm without the risk of farming.

Stephanie: What is your least favourite part of the job?
I don’t always enjoy the administrative meetings I have to attend. Like most jobs, mine involves a certain amount of meetings to discuss operations, safety and security, planning and progress. I prefer to be working on my projects than talking about how to support them administratively.

Stephanie: What advice do you have for someone considering becoming a crop researcher?
I think it’s tough to become a researcher without experience. From your first summer in undergrad, actively seek out work in agriculture. There are summer jobs at research stations in provincial and federal government, and with industry. If you can’t find a research job, find a job in production. Production knowledge is very important, and being able to talk with and work with farmers will make your career much easier. Sometimes it might be financially advantageous to accept a summer job outside the field of agriculture, but when it comes time to look for a job at the end of your degree, relevant experience counts the most.

Take as many special topic projects as you can at university. These give you job experience.

Be bilingual. This can only give you the edge over your uni-lingual competitors.

Stephanie: What kind of an education do you need to be a crop researcher? What kind of education did you get?
You need a master’s degree or a PhD. I have a B.Sc. (Agr.) in plant science and an M.Sc. in horticulture.

Stephanie: What is your favourite crop?
Melons, definitely. Sugar Babies, Canary melons, cantaloupes, Montréal melons, Crenshaw melons and all the others. Fortunately, melons often fall into the category of vegetable in crop research because they are so closely related to cucumbers and squash. Nothing beats working out in the field all day, under the beating sun on a research experiment, and then, when you just might faint from the heat, you "accidentally" drop a melon from one of the trials. It splits open and you have no choice but to sample it on the spot!

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